Thursday, January 27, 2011

SpiderBabe (2003)

Have you ever made a decision that you knew would probably be a stupid one as soon as you made it? I'm having one of those moments right now. I'd recently had the idea to broaden my horizons in terms of the movies I review here, which led me to SpiderBabe, the movie this post will cover.

As you might have guessed, SpiderBabe is an obvious parody of Spider-Man, made to cash in on the success of Spidey's first movie. But it isn't just any parody. No, it's the softcore porno parody. Yes, "Sutton at the Movies" has finally run out of regular movies to review and is now tackling softcore pornography. And I used to be such a nice boy.

But before this blog is finished circling the drain, let's have a little history lesson. SpiderBabe was the creation of Seduction Cinema, a label of micro-budget film company EI Independent Cinema. And as the name suggests, Seduction Cinema specializes in the type of movies that you'd see on Cinemax at 2:00 in the morning. They're no stranger to doing what they call "sexy spoofs," with movies like Play-Mate of the Apes, Lord of the G-Strings, and Batbabe: The Dark Nightie to their credit. SpiderBabe is simply another in their rather extensive pornographic portfolio.

But why would I step outside of my comfort zone and review softcore porn now? Perhaps it's in the challenge of it. You can't exactly approach a movie like this like you would a traditional movie, can you? Plus I'm a total sucker for pretty much anything related to superheroes, so why not give it a shot? So let's take a look at SpiderBabe and watch this blog become a man.

Our tale of sexy superheroics focuses on Patricia Porker (Misty Mundae), a timid high school student who often finds herself being picked on by her classmates. But the life she knows is about to change, as she is bitten by a genetically-altered spider during a field trip to a science lab. The bite not only enhances her libido, but imbues her with the abilities to climb walls and shoot webbing from her crotch. Yeah.

Desperate for some quick cash, Patricia signs up for a match with a local wrestling promotion with the name "SpiderBabe." But after she fails to stop someone from robbing the box office, the thief ends up killing her uncle (Peter Quarry). Wracked with guilt over her inaction, Patricia dedicates herself to using her powers for good... and getting laid.

Since every good superhero needs a supervillain, SpiderBabe will soon have a foe of her own. Enter Lucinda Knoxx (Julian Wells), the power-hungry sister of Patricia's best friend Lisa (Darian Caine). Wishing to have superpowers of her own, Lucinda uses the same genetic engineering that the spider that bit Patricia underwent. The procedure causes her to develop an alternate personality, that of the villainous Femtilian. And like any good supervillain, Femtilian's ultimate goal is world domination. This goal, however, will most certainly pit her against SpiderBabe in a battle of good versus evil.

SpiderBabe is one silly movie. There's no two ways about it. The movie is cheap-looking, the acting is all over the place, the jokes are sophomoric, and then there's that whole "softcore porno" thing. But believe it or not, SpiderBabe still manages to be an amusing movie. It obviously had a miniscule budget and couldn't possibly come close to replicating Spider-Man's special effects or production value, but it does make up for it by ratcheting up the camp factor. The movie's a dumb one, but it knows this and plays it for all its worth.

The movie was directed by Johnny Crash, who did as good a job as he could considering he had practically no budget to work with. A lot of Seduction Cinema's "sexy spoofs" look the same, with cheap costumes and props, lazy cinematography, and sets that look like they're borrowed from a local high school drama club. But Crash makes it work. With the better-than-the-norm cinematography and shooting locations that don't look like someone's backyard (they actually filmed in Times Square, for crying out loud!), the movie looks a lot better than it could have. It's still cheap-looking, especially when the cheesy green-screen effects, but it could have been a lot worse.

The script is also a bit better than one would expect. Written by John Paul Fedele and Terry West, both of whom have appeared in and worked on the crew for numerous titles in the Seduction Cinema and EI Independent Cinema libraries, the script has quite a few genuinely funny moments. The humor comes more from goofy one-liners than anything else, but funny's funny, and I'll take what I can get. But the truth of the matter is that the script is good enough that with a little spit and polish to eliminate the whole porno element, along with a bigger budget and legitimate actors, SpiderBabe could have been the mainstream Spider-Man spoof instead of Superhero Movie.

But last on my list is the cast, which is mostly made up of members of Seduction Cinema's cabal of nubile young women. Watch a few of their movies, and you'll see the same actresses more than once. But of all of them, their poster child is Misty Mundae, who plays SpiderBabe's title character. I've seen her in a few movies in various genres (and under different names, too), and I must admit that I enjoy her work a lot. Even though most of those movies have been pretty awful, I've always thought that Mundae was charming and downright funny. SpiderBabe is no exception, as she's a lot of fun to watch. Mundae's got a sharp comedic wit that makes even the dopiest jokes worth laughing at, and is cute as a button to boot.

I wish I could pay the same compliments to the rest of the cast, but really, I can't. Outside of Mundae, there isn't a single performance in the movie that's worth watching. Just because this is a porno doesn't mean you can't at least try, ladies. I mean, you've gotta do something in movies like this besides get naked and grope each other, right? But I guess I could play nice and talk about the major players besides Mundae.

Playing the villainous Femtilian is Julian Wells, and let me tell you, Willem Dafoe she ain't. You can tell she's trying to channel Dafoe's Green Goblin by overacting as hard as she can, but she's barely okay. She's watchable at best, and even that's pushing it. At least she's better than Darian Caine, who plays SpiderBabe's answer to Harry Osborn. Caine's performance is exactly what you'd expect from a movie like this: pretty darn lousy. But she doesn't have all that many scenes, so she isn't around for too long.

I'm still amazed that I actually sat down and wrote a review for a softcore porno parody of Spider-Man. I feel like I should be ashamed of myself. But as bad as the movie is, it's still a lot of dumb, dopey fun. And it isn't really that much of a porno either, since the sex scenes aren't any more explicit than what you'd see in a typical R-rated movie. It's mostly naked groping. Seriously. But with or without those scenes, SpiderBabe is a silly flick that nobody who watches it could ever in a million years take seriously. I'd be a fool to say it's actually a good movie, but it's an amusing watch if you do stumble upon it. So I'm going to give it two and a half stars on the usual scale. And at least the movie tried being clever, instead of just calling itself Spider-Man XXX: The Porn Parody, like the recent Batman adult movie did. There's nothing wrong with having a little imagination, right?

Final Rating: **½

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Defendor (2009)

While Hollywood has been making superhero movies for a long time, they've been especially big business over the last decade or so. It seems like you can't go a year without seeing two or three movies based on characters owned by Marvel Comics, with a lesser handful of movies coming from rival DC Comics. But on occasion, you'll see some filmmakers who instead create their own superheroes, ones unburdened by the preconceived notions of built-in audiences. This concept has brought us movies like The Incredibles, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Hancock, and Sky High, as well as the topic of this particular review, Defendor. It's not a movie most people have heard of, but it's a movie that's definitely worth seeing.

Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is a slow-witted, socially awkward man who has grown sick of the crime plaguing the city he calls home. He's so sick of it, in fact, that he has adopted the superhero persona of "Defendor" in order to combat it. Clad in a cheap costume and shoe polish mask, Arthur arms himself with low-budget weapons (a trench club, marbles, a jar full of angry wasps) and hits the streets. His primary target, though, is a crime kingpin he calls "Captain Industry." He doesn't know where or even who Captain Industry is, but Arthur is convinced he's out there, needing to be taken down.

Arthur soon befriends a young woman named Kat (Kat Dennings), a drug-addicted prostitute who's been living on the streets. Kat initially exploits his kindness, promising Arthur information about Captain Industry in exchange for money to fuel her crack habit. But the two eventually bond, however, over stories of their troubled childhoods. But little do they know that Arthur's attempts to find Captain Industry have made him an enemy of corrupt cop Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas) and drug lord Radovan Kristic (A.C. Peterson).

Defendor had a rather troubled road to release. It was initially written in 2005, but no studios wanted it. The script eventually found a home in Canadian production company Darius Films, who aimed to start filming in 2007. Ellen Page was even rumored to play Kat at one point. But more and more delays resulted in not only Page dropping out, but production being pushed back several years. The movie was finally filmed in January 2009 and had its world premiere the following September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Sony Pictures acquired the distribution rights for much of the world after the film festival, but opted not to give Defendor a theatrical release in the United States. Why, I don't know, but it prompted Darius Films to distribute it themselves. It was a very small release — Box Office Mojo says it played in no wider than four theaters for two weeks last February — but at least it did see American movie screens before Sony dumped it on DVD as an afterthought a few months later. It's a shame that Defendor didn't have the opportunity to build a wider audience, because it's a great flick from start to finish.

The movie was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Peter Stebbings, whose work with both facets was top notch. His direction is stellar, as he puts the editing, David Greene's cinematography, and John Rowley's fantastic score to use in such a way that it makes Defendor a real treat to watch. While Stebbings didn't have the budget to do anything visually enticing like most superhero movies, he makes the best of it.

Since the movie can't match the visuals of its cinematic brethren, Stebbings makes up for it by letting the story and characters take over. Defendor is very much in the vein of Don Quixote, as its title character has an extreme fondness for comic books and a belief that he can be a superhero no matter how ludicrous it may seem. But while there've been more than a few movies that have approached this farcically (Blankman and Kick-Ass immediately spring to mind), Defendor has a sweet earnestness to it that makes it really charming. It's not a zany spoof of self-styled superheroes like Blankman or Kick-Ass, but a blend of drama and black comedy. Stebbings uses this to make we the viewer really care about the title character and those who surround him, which I liked a lot.

But helping this is the cast, the wonderful cast. The cast is nothing short of fantastic. However, they're all overshadowed by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is captivating in the role, drawing the viewer in with every second he's on the screen. He plays Arthur as incredibly naïve and seemingly unaware of his own ineffectualness as a superhero, yet very lovable. There's a scene where a pack of goons start mocking Arthur's attempt to issue an intimidating threat, and the look on his face — like he's embarrassed to the point of tears — is so heart-wrenching and so convincing that you'll believe that you're really watching Arthur Poppington, Wannabe Superhero instead of Woody Harrelson, Actor.

That's not to say that the movie is a one-actor show, though. Okay, it kinda is, since Harrelson nearly carries the entire movie by himself. But he's complimented by a very good supporting cast. Kat Dennings is the real standout among the ancillary cast, managing to provoke anger as her character exploits Arthur and sympathy as you realize just what complete mess her life is. Dennings imbues Kat with a sense that even though she's flushed her life completely down the crapper with drugs and prostitution, she still has the potential to live a better life. Her performance is so richly layered that I'm surprised Dennings doesn't get more work as a serious actress.

Defendor has flown completely under the radar and will probably take several years to develop any sort of solid cult following (if it's lucky). But it's a movie that is worth the effort to track down, because it's a tremendous flick. Even if superheroes aren't your thing, Harrelson's brilliant work here is enough to warrant a viewing. Defendor was proof enough to me that you don't need hundreds of millions of dollars and the backing of a major studio to make a great superhero movie. And not only is it a great superhero movie, it's a great movie, period. So do yourself a favor and go check it out. Defendor gets four stars and a proud recommendation. And if I ever become a superhero, I'm totally getting jars of wasps to attack people with.

Final Rating: ****

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

Not every superhero needs extraordinary abilities, enhanced armor, or even a flashy costume. Some of them can make it with just a badass car and a simple domino mask. Case in point: The Green Hornet.

Created by George W. Trendle and an uncredited Fran Striker, the Green Hornet made his first appearance in 1936 on a radio program that aired on WXYZ-AM in Detroit before eventually reaching syndication. He's been adapted into comic books and 1940s film serials, and was most famously depicted in a TV show starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee that lasted for only the 1966-67 broadcast season.

But it would be 75 years from his first appearance before the Green Hornet would get his own feature-length major motion picture. The twenty-first century version of the Green Hornet hit theaters a week and a half ago, and in 3D to boot. So let's dig in and see just how it turned out.

The movie quickly introduces us to Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), an irresponsible slacker whose father (Tom Wilkinson) is the well-respected publisher of prominent Los Angeles newspaper The Daily Sentinel. Britt is satisfied with an existence that has no purpose or direction, but his outlook on life changes when his father dies after an allergic reaction to a bee sting. He returns home after the funeral and promptly fires the entire staff, save a maid and Kato (Jay Chou), a mechanic and tremendously skilled martial artist.

Britt and Kato strike a friendship, bonding over their mutual dislike of Britt's father and drunkenly deciding to chop off the head of a statue erected in his honor. In doing so, they end up rescuing a couple from being mugged and are mistaken for criminals themselves by the police. Britt and Kato successfully evade the cops after a chase, and in the aftermath, Britt convinces Kato that they should start doing that on a regular basis, but unlike how usual superheroes go about upholding the law. The plan: to take out criminals and use Britt's position at the Daily Sentinel to make their exploits look like a gangland turf war instigated by the mysterious "Green Hornet."

And as a means of accomplishing this, Kato uses his knack for building useful gadgets to create "the Black Beauty," a bulletproof car armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, and a flamethrower. Gleaning a little know-how in criminology from Britt's new secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz), they hit the streets and start making names for themselves. It's not long before Britt and Kato draw the attention of paranoid mob boss Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). He just can't have anybody mooching in on his business, so Chudnofsky himself sets into motion a plan to eliminate the Green Hornet for good.

I didn't really know what to expect from The Green Hornet, thanks to my unfamiliarity with the property. I'd never heard the radio show, seen the TV show or serials, or read the comic books. But I generally like Seth Rogan's movies, so I figured I'd give it a shot. And you know what? I liked it a lot. I thought it was really cool. While I didn't think it was necessary to make the movie in 3D, The Green Hornet was still a fun way to spend two hours.

At the helm is Michel Gondry, a French music video director whose work as a filmmaker includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind. I can't say I've actually seen any of his work beyond The Green Hornet, but what I can say is that I enjoyed his work here. It helps that Gondry has John Schwartzman's fantastic cinematography and James Newton Howard's great music to work with, because the movie looks great. The best parts, though, were Kato's fight scenes. They reminded me a lot of the fight scenes from Jet Li's The One, a movie that I just plain love to bits.

If there's anything negative about the direction, it's that the movie feels like it drags in a few places. The movie could have been trimmed a little here and there and brought down to about an hour and 45 minutes, and it would have been fine. There's a scene in the movie where Britt and Kato end up brawling through Britt's house after a disagreement, and while the scene is funny, it's too long. It's long to the point of being absurd. You mean to tell me that they couldn't have cut at least a little bit from it?

I also thought the script could have used a little polishing too. Credited to Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, the script has quite a few bits that could have been cut as well. Take, for example, the character of Lenore. Each of Lenore's scenes could have been deleted altogether, and they'd have never been missed. I know the character has long been a part of the Green Hornet franchise, but as far as this movie goes, she's completely useless. Any sort of information she gives Britt and Kato about how the criminal mind works could have easily been explained by saying they read it on Google, and the whole love triangle idea (which was badly done in the first place) could have just been rewritten to cause some kind of other conflict between Britt and Kato.

But the real problem is how unfocused it feels. You get the impression that Rogan and Goldberg were just making it up as they went along. None of it really feels connected to anything else, like they just wrote a bunch of different scenes and tried piecing them together as an afterthought. Perhaps they believed that the idea of making a comedy about the Green Hornet would just work itself out. I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't approach it with anything more than that.

Rogan and Goldberg do succeed, though, in writing a really funny movie. Sure, some of the jokes do bomb on occasion, but for the most part, Rogan and Goldberg have written a movie with a lot of laughs. The movie is legitimately funny, despite what some negative reviews might say. But I guess it depends on your personal sense of humor. You're not going to laugh at something if you don't think it's funny. But it worked for me, so I'm going to call it a success on the comedic side of things.

So let's continue onward to the cast. Rogan plays the title role, and really, he's just playing the same character he plays in all of his movies. If you can find a movie where he isn't playing a smartass buffoon, I'll be very surprised. (And no, his cameo in Step Brothers doesn't count.) But you know what? Rogan probably plays this character so much because he's good at it. He's charming and likable even when he's playing a total jackass, and he's funny to boot. Though Rogan's version of the Gren Hornet is less of a stereotypical hero and more of a sarcastic frat boy in a domino mask, he's still really entertaining regardless.

I also thought Jay Chou did a great job as Kato. This is Chou's first Hollywood movie after having found success as an actor and musician in China, and he makes the most of it. The character requires more physicality than acting talent, but Chau is aces as both an actor and a fighter. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Cameron Diaz, who is wasted here. She's playing a useless character, and her performance reflects that. I couldn't find any reason for Diaz to be in the movie at all, especially since she doesn't do anything in it that's worth seeing to begin with.

And playing our primary villain is Christoph Waltz, who's appearing his first movie following his Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds. While his work in Inglourious Basterds was masterful, his work on The Green Hornet is not so much. Waltz is way too subdued; he's supposed to be paranoid and neurotic, yet he plays the part like he smoked about ten pounds of reefer before Gondry called "action." He's the most laid-back paranoid guy ever. He's not bad, per se, but Waltz seems like he's just there to collect a paycheck.

Before I wrap things up, I can't in good conscience finish this review without at least briefly mentioning the 3D effects. The truth of it is that there is no reason at all for The Green Hornet to be in 3D. The movie was even shot in 2D and converted to 3D as an afterthought. It's an obvious conversion too, since it never really utilizes the 3D as well as it could have. The only thing being in 3D adds to the movie is an extra $2.50 to the ticket price, because for all intents and purposes, the 3D is worthless. You could watch it in 2D and not feel like you're missing anything at all.

But whether you see it in 2D or 3D, and despite the complaining I've done about it, The Green Hornet is still a fun movie to watch. The mixed to negative reviews it's gotten is proof that not everyone will like it, but I thought it was good enough for what it was. I liked the movie, and this is my blog, so who cares what those other reviews say? So despite its flaws, I'm going to give The Green Hornet three stars and a thumbs up. I kinda wish I had that extra $2.50 back, though.

Final Rating: ***½

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Blankman (1994)

Batman's been done a million different ways by a million different people, but one of my favorite versions of the character has always been the '60s television show that starred Adam West as the titular hero. It's a hard show to take seriously, but it's just so much fun that one can easily overlook its flaws. And I'm not the only one who loves the show, either. Twenty-six years after the show's cancellation, Damon Wayans would create an affectionate parody of that incarnation of the Caped Crusader in Blankman. The movie does have a certain charm, but it's a sadly disappointing movie.

The movie introduces us to Darryl Walker (Wayans), an awkward, childlike inventor who is blissfully unaware of the fact that his inner city neighborhood is quickly decaying. When mob boss Michael Minelli (Jon Polito) kills a group of supporters for an honest mayoral candidate, including his beloved grandmother (Lynne Thigpen), Darryl's eyes are opened to just how bad things are.

Convinced that someone has to clean up the city, Darryl decides to become a masked superhero in the vein of his favorite TV do-gooder, Adam West's Batman. He dons a goofy-looking pink costume coated with a bulletproof chemical of his own design, and arms himself with homemade weapons made from assorted junk and household objects. His brother Kevin (David Alan Grier) remains cynical but plays along anyway, believing that this is just Darryl's way of coping with their grandmother's murder.

But Darryl's various good deeds around the city earn him the attention of the media, who dub him "Blankman" after his initial failure to come up with a name. Kevin himself starts tagging along as Blankman's sidekick, "Other Guy," to make sure Darryl doesn't get in over his head. But it won't be an easy job, as Blankman and Other Guy quickly find themselves in Minelli's crosshairs.

The argument could be made that Blankman is a spiritual sibling to The Meteor Man. Released right at a year after The Meteor Man hit theaters, Blankman is also about an African American man donning a superhero costume to fight crime in the ghetto. However, Blankman is much more focused than The Meteor Man. While Robert Townsend's tale of an ersatz Superman couldn't decide between being serious and being funny, Blankman is most certainly a comedy. It doesn't try to be anything more than that, and is better for it. That doesn't mean it's a good movie, but it at least knows what it wants to be.

Helming the movie is Mike Binder, whose direction is evocative of the Batman TV show. The villains are filmed at Dutch angles, and the scene transitions where the Batman logo comes rushing at the screen is humorously lampooned. Binder also sure to keep the movie moving at a steady pace, never letting Blankman slow down long enough to get boring. But he handles the movie in such a way that you can tell it isn't going to be taking itself too seriously. This works in the movie's favor, since that sort of feel makes it easier to stomach some of its dumber moments. I mean, if the movie is going to be laid back and carefree, then why get upset over some stupid stuff?

But let's move on. The next item on my list is the screenplay, penned by Damon Wayans and J.F. Lawton. And as a spoof of the old Batman TV show, it isn't bad at all. It could have been better, though. That's the sad part. Not every joke in the movie works, and a lot of the ones that do are cheesy and kinda lame upon retrospect. I also didn't like the idea of giving Blankman a love interest. It just feels tacked on and unnecessary. Did Blankman absolutely need a love interest?

There are parts of the script that do work, though. As I said earlier, Blankman is focused on being nothing more than a simple comedy. Wayans and Lawton know what they want to do with the movie, and things are better for it. If they had been indecisive about how they'd wanted to approach it, then the whole thing would have been screwed. But Wayans and Lawton know what movie they're writing. And even though the script is flawed, at least it has a definitive identity.

Rounding things out are the cast, who I didn't think was too bad at all. There aren't any Oscar-caliber performances by a long shot, but at least nobody in the movie actively sucks. In the title role is Damon Wayans, who plays Blankman as so tremendously nerdy that he makes the Tri-Lambs from Revenge of the Nerds look like the Alpha Betas. It starts to get a little irritating after a while, but Wayans still manages to be funny and likable enough to make it not that big a deal.

In the role of Blankman's brother and sidekick is David Alan Grier, who is essentially the movie's straight man. But Grier seems to be something of an aversion of the typical straight man archetype, since he ends up contributing just as much humor as the rest of the cast does. Grier is really funny at times, but other times his acting method seems to be solely "annoyed yelling." But he's still good when he's not yelling or screaming, so at least he has that going for him.

I also liked Jon Polito as the movie's villain. Polito is so hammy and so over-the-top that you can't help but be entertained by his performance. The rest of the cast works well too, with the possible exception of Robin Givens as the aforementioned love interest. I thought Givens was forgettable and just plain disappointing, though it's obvious she's at least trying her hardest. But I guess that sort of thing will happen when a casting director hires someone whose greatest claim to fame is being Mike Tyson's ex-wife.

Blankman isn't a great movie and probably will not appeal to anyone who isn't already a huge fan of superhero movies. But it's not a bad movie, either. It's not perfect, yeah, but it has just as many funny moments to counterbalance those flaws. So I guess you could say Blankman breaks even. That's not too bad, is it? I do wonder, though... why parody the Batman TV show after Tim Burton had already done his two Batman movies? Wouldn't it have been more topical to parody them instead? But considering Blankman is almost twenty years old, I guess it's too late to change it now.

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Meteor Man (1993)

During the first half of the 1990s, urban struggle became a major theme in African American pop culture. Gangsta rap was becoming more and more popular, and movies about young black men coming of age in neighborhoods populated by street gangs were seeing release seemingly all the time. However, the success of gangsta rap and "hood films" like Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society were unfortunately seen by some as glorifying the violent gang life that their underlying messages were trying to warn against. Perhaps as a response to this, filmmaker Robert Townsend created The Meteor Man, his attempt at creating a Superman for black audiences. And sadly, it's about as mediocre as you can get.

Meet Jefferson Reed (Townsend), a meek substitute teacher whose Washington, DC, neighborhood is terrorized by the Golden Lords. A drug-dealing gang that uses violence and intimidation to keep control of their turf, their grip on the community is such that they've even started initiating young children into their ranks. Jefferson loathes the Golden Lords, but is just as frightened of them as his neighbors are. He finally works up the courage to stand up to them and try breaking up a mugging, but ends up being chased by them instead.

When he emerges from the dumpster he had hidden in, Jefferson is crushed by a glowing green meteorite as it falls from space. His body is broken and burned seemingly beyond repair, but is somehow fully healed after only a few days. Jefferson quickly discovers that the meteor has bestowed upon him numerous superpowers, among them (but not limited to) enhanced strength and speed, invulnerability, flight, X-ray vision, telekinesis, and the ability to speak to animals. He reveals the development of these powers to his best friend (Eddie Griffin) and his parents (Marla Gibbs and Robert Guillaume), who convince him to use his powers to improve the community.

Donning a costume and assuming the superhero identity of "The Meteor Man," Jefferson quickly begins making a difference. He shuts down a crack house, turns a vacant lot into a thriving garden market, and fosters peace between the Bloods and the Crips. But his good deeds put him directly in the crosshairs of the Golden Lords and their leader, the vicious Simon Caine (Roy Fegan), who sees the Meteor Man as a threat to their business interests.

It's obvious what Townsend was trying to do with The Meteor Man. Watching it, you get the feeling that he wanted to create something with the message that fearful people could run gangs out of their neighborhoods if only they'd band together and stand up for themselves. But the problem with the movie is that Townsend doesn't seem to know how to handle it. It feels like the movie wants to be both a serious effort and a parody of superheroes. You can't have your cake and eat it too, and it shows with The Meteor Man.

To his credit, I thought Townsend's direction was actually pretty good. It isn't as flashy as you might expect from a superhero story, but Townsend still manages to make the movie an energetic one. The best thing going for Townsend's direction, though, is the cinematography courtesy of John Alonzo. Alonzo's camerawork helps the movie a lot, elevating it above the generic homogenized feel that a lot of similarly-budgeted movies from the time period had. The score composed by Peter Scott also goes a long way, helping establish the tone with a grander scope that one might expect. The songs on the soundtrack aren't really all that good, unfortunately, but not everything can be perfect.

Speaking of things that aren't perfect, let's touch on Townsend's script. It's really one of the bigger flaws of The Meteor Man. As I noted before, Townsend doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind as to whether or not he wants to make a parody of superheroes or a straightforward tale of bettering one's decaying neigborhood. It's too serious to be a comedy, and too funny to be taken seriously. I appreciate what Townsend was aiming for, since the overall message is clear. But the execution is pretty weakly done.

I'm also a little curious about the Golden Lords. What kind of street gang expects to be taken seriously when they all have the same goofy blonde dye jobs and matching uniforms? And are they even really a street gang? They're claiming territory all along the East Coast and their leader answers to an old man played by Frank Gorshin, so maybe they're in league with the Mafia instead? And what kind of gang includes a full army of kindergartners? That's just silly.

But let's move along to the cast, a veritable all-star team of black actors. Just look at the full cast roster on IMDB, and you'll be surprised at the number of heavy hitters Townsend has assembled for the movie. Townsend himself is in the lead role, and I liked him a lot. He's very engaging, very convincing, and very entertaining. I also felt like he owed a small debt of gratitude to William Katt's role on The Greatest American Hero, since both play teachers who became reluctant superheroes through extraterrestrial means. But that's neither here nor there, really.

As our resident villain du jour, Roy Fegan is sadly forgettable. He doesn't do anything to stand out, coming across like he's the living embodiment of every bad guy cliché out there. And the unfortunate thing is that pretty much the entire cast is forgettable too, even Townsend (despite his good work). There are so many stars in this movie, yet their talents are all wasted. Bill Cosby doesn't even get a single line of dialogue, for crying out loud! The cast situation pretty much sums up the entire movie: all kinds of promise, wasted.

That's the whole problem with The Meteor Man. It has all the potential to be a good movie. I desperately wanted to tell you that it's a great flick, but I can't. It's one of those movies that I want to like but let me down through one fault or another. The Meteor Man is, quite simply, a disappointment. So I'm going to give the movie two stars on the usual scale. I'll only recommend it to people who have to see every superhero movie ever. And for some reason, I'm tempted to track down that Meteor Man comic book that Marvel published after the movie was released. I'm still not sure why, though.

Final Rating: **

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Private Parts (1997)

Though they've been around since the 1970s, "shock jocks" really hit their peak in the '90s. Radio DJs with a penchant for crude, potentially offensive humor were huge during the decade, and the biggest among them was Howard Stern. Stern was all over the place during the first half of the '90s, with his syndicated radio show and television shows getting high ratings, and his two autobiographies were on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. And to reinforce his self-given nickname, "The King of All Media," Stern starred in a hit movie based on his first autobiography, Private Parts. Because who better to play you in a movie about your life than you yourself?

The general plot of the movie sees Howard narrating his life story as he sees it. After touching briefly upon his awkward childhood, it really starts focusing on his awkward adulthood. He takes us through his days as a Boston University DJ and meeting his future — and as of this writing, former — wife Alison (Mary McCormack), to working at stations in Hartford, Detroit, and Washington, DC. We see the origins of his friendships and working relationships with long-time collaborators Fred Norris and Robin Quivers (who both play themselves).

The movie's final act takes us to Howard's tenure on WNBC-AM in New York City. His outrageous nature causes him to frequently clash with the station's hot-headed program director, Kenny Rushton (Paul Giamatti), whom Howard promptly nicknames "Pig Vomit" (because, in Howard's words, "he looks like a pig and he makes you want to vomit"). But despite Pig Vomit's attempts to tone down Howard's routine, his popularity and ratings soar nonetheless.

Okay, so Private Parts isn't a great movie. I don't know if I could even call it a good movie. But it's certainly an intriguing one. It's a vanity project on a grand scale, basing itself on Howard Stern's first book, starring Stern and his friends, and featuring a song performed by Stern on the soundtrack. The whole thing is all about him. And though I've never listened to Stern on either terrestrial or satellite radio, the way he's depicted in Private Parts makes him way more interesting than he probably is for real. But I guess that's how it is when you get to make a movie about your own life story.

I'm not sure if I can truly critique Private Parts, since it's less a movie and more a promotional vehicle for Stern's on-air persona, but I guess I can try. In the director's chair is Betty Thomas, whose only really notable credits before Private Parts were The Brady Bunch Movie and a few episodes of Doogie Howser, MD. Her direction isn't really anything tremendous, but considering the movie is a comedy about a radio DJ, you can overlook that. Thomas does, though, manage to bring a silly energy to the movie, giving Private Parts the "we're going nuts, so don't take us too seriously" vibe that Stern himself has in the movie.

Continuing onward, let's hit the script, credited to Len Blum and Michael Kaleshniko. I don't know how much was pulled from Stern's book or contributed by Stern himself during production, but overall, the script is... okay, I guess. It's adequate. The thing is tat there's not really any story being old. It's simply a series of vignettes, and then it ends. It just kinda tapers off towards the end with no real climax or anything like that. Considering that there's no real narrative or really satisfying ending, I think the script was lucky to even be mediocre.

Its saving ace is the comedy. The jokes in the movie aren't for everybody, just like Stern's show. Not all of the jokes and gags work, either. But he ones that do work are actually pretty funny. I'm not going to call Private Parts a laugh riot, but the humor will at least put a smile on your face if you share the movie's sensibilities. It may be crass, but it's a charming kind of crass.

Last on my list is the movie's cast, and it's obvious that many of the major players aren't professional actors. But the fact that they're all trying their hardest goes a long way. Stern is obviously the movie's focus, and since he's playing himself, his performance is about as natural as you can get. Stern's really funny, entertaining, and does a great job carrying he movie. Granted, the guy has a face for radio and a voice for silent film, but Stern knocks it right out of the park.

The rest of the cast is fine, but only two of them stand out. One is Mary McCormack as Alison Stern. While I do wonder how the movie would have turned out if the real Alison had played herself, I can say that I thought McCormack was sweet and charming. Her performance actually makes me sympathize with the real Alison (and by extent, Howard's current wife Beth), since they're the ones who've had to put up with his crazy shenanigans.

The other standout performance was Paul Giamatti as Pig Vomit, a composite of two WNBC executives that dealt with Stern during his time there. Giamatti is loud, over-the-top, and totally hammy, never once taking a breather. I'm surprised you couldn't see the veins popping out of his forehead during his tirades. Every second Giamatti is onscreen, you can't wait to see how he reacts to Stern's attempts to humiliate him, something that makes his performance so important to the movie. He plays a great foil for Stern, at the very least.

Though Stern's mainstream recognition has cooled rather significantly in the fourteen years since the movie's release, he still has a presence on radio. And even if he didn't, Private Parts would still be around to tell us what an oddball he is. The movie is actually quite a lot like Stern himself: either you're a fan and you get the joke, or you aren't and you don't. Frankly, I'm not sure how to feel about the whole thing. But as of now, I'm leaning towards two and a half stars for Howard Stern's Private Parts. There's a joke in that last sentence somewhere, but I won't be the one who makes it.

Final Rating: **½