Hidden Netflix Gems – The Toxic Avenger

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

If you’ve never heard of Troma Entertainment, there is no better place to start than their 1984 masterpiece, The Toxic Avenger. Though at first glance, this may seem like a terrible movie, it is actually that rarest of all “so bad it’s good” movies: the kind that is simultaneously self-aware and very sincere. Sure, it’s filled with cheesy puns and one-liners, and the performances are uniformly over-the-top and cartoonish, but that’s all part of director Lloyd Kaufman‘s unique, immediately recognizable style. Kaufman may be a trash filmmaker, but he has embraced sleaze so fully that he almost transcends it. He is truly the greatest trash auteur since Roger Corman; in fact, he’s greater, because his films are even trashier than Corman’s ever were.

The Toxic Avenger takes place, as all canon Troma films do, in the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey, “the toxic waste dumping capital of the world.” Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) is a scrawny, awkward nerd who works as a janitor at a local health club, where he is perpetually tormented by a quartet of bullies. Bozo (Gary Schneider) and Slug (Robert Prichard) are a couple of meat-head juvenile delinquents who spend their free time either working out or going on vehicular homicide sprees with their equally unredeemable girlfriends, Wanda (Jennifer Babtist) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Early on in the film, we see them run over an innocent boy on a bicycle (D.J. Calvitto) in an obscenely graphic shot gloriously preserved on Netflix in the original unrated version. When Wanda later pleasures herself to a photo of the messy murder, it’s almost as if the film is commenting on the exact kind of repugnant titillation it so gleefully provides.

At any rate, a prank the gang plays on Melvin goes horribly awry and ends with him falling through a window and landing in a barrel of toxic waste, transforming him into a “hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength.” Played by Mitchell Cohen and voiced by Kenneth Kessler, the Toxic Avenger fights not only the bullies responsible for his transformation, but also the rampant corruption found everywhere in Tromaville, leading right up to its evil boss, Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan, Jr.). Along the way, he rescues and falls in love with a beautiful blind woman named Sara (Andree Maranda), who loves him for who he is and not what he looks like.

The Toxic Avenger is a wonderful blend of superhero and monster movies, with comedy at the forefront. It’s raunchy, violent comedy, and certainly not for everyone, but it strikes a unique cultural chord as a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also presents an unusually smart and intriguing worldview. Its environmental and political concerns are blatant, but no one could seriously accuse a movie this silly of being preachy. I highly recommend this film to anyone with a taste for “bad” movies, with a caveat that its first two sequels are genuinely not very good. Luckily, Citizen Tonie: The Toxic Avenger IV brings the franchise back to its peak form, and is considered “the real sequel.”

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – The House of Yes

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The term “dark comedy” often seems overused, as relatively few films really strike the balance between truly dark and truly funny, tending instead to fall more on one side or the other. One film that really deserves the title, however, is Mark Waters‘ 1997 adaptation of Wendy MacLeod‘s play, The House of Yes. Blending sharp, clever dialogue and a wonderfully unhinged lead performance by Parker Posey with exceptionally disturbing subject matter and boldly unlikable characters, The House of Yes has to be one of the darkest comedies ever made. At the same time, though, it is strikingly funny.

Posey is “Jackie-O” Pascal, a disturbed young woman with a lifelong obsession over Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, especially, the JFK assassination. As a child, she once dressed as her namesake for Halloween, complete with fake blood and “brains” made from macaroni. She also has an unhealthy fixation on her twin brother, Marty (Josh Hamilton), with whom she shares a far too close relationship, even for twins. Their mother (Genevieve Bujold), upon meeting Marty’s fiancée, Lesly (Tori Spelling), tells her, “Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb.” This casual admission of such an unsettling fact to a relative stranger gives the viewer a pretty strong idea of how this unbalanced family came to be the way they are.

Jackie and Marty’s younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), has his share of problems as well, chief among them being his strong desire for the sort of bond shared by the twins. Feeling left out, he makes clumsy advances toward Lesly, heightening her understandable discomfort as she is basically stranded with her bizarre new family during a hurricane. The film’s single location and relatively few characters, as well as its reliance on dialogue and performance above all, make its origins as a stage play obvious, but that doesn’t really hurt its impact. The oddly claustrophobic nature of the single location only adds to the tension of the situation as poor Lesly, who is clearly Marty’s futile attempt to escape from his insane family, struggles to cope with the extreme dysfunction all around her. Of course, Marty can never really escape from the madness of his family, since he himself is such an integral part of it, and the conclusion of The House of Yes is in keeping with the rest of it: relentlessly dark, and at the same time, disturbingly funny.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Session 9

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Most films classified within the horror genre are not so much truly scary as they are fun in a sort of morbid way, at least to true horror fans. A real horror fan is too jaded to actually jump when the killer jumps out of the shadows, and certainly most monster movies are more eye candy to the true fan than they are actually frightening. The one thing most of the scariest films ever made have in common is a strong atmosphere of claustrophobia, a sense of no escape from a terrifying situation. Whether it’s in outer space (Alien), a remote arctic wilderness (The Thing), or an isolated building haunted by the past (The Shining), the feeling of being either physically or psychologically trapped is essential to real terror.

Brad Anderson‘s Session 9 has this atmosphere in spades, which is one reason it is probably the scariest film of the past decade. Though its characters can and do leave the location of the horror, a defunct mental hospital from which they have been contracted to remove asbestos, once they have set foot in it the horror never really leaves them. Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is the owner of the company, a man troubled by a failing marriage and seemingly a lack of proper sleep. The rest of his team has their problems as well, all integral to the horror that befalls them. Mike (Stephen Gevedon, the film’s co-writer) is a law school dropout who has some prior knowledge of the asylum, which gradually begins to seem like an unhealthy obsession. Phil (David Caruso) and Hank (Josh Lucas) have an uncomfortable shared history, in that Phil’s former girlfriend is now with Hank, and Gordon’s nephew, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), has a severe case of nyctophobia, or fear of the dark.

The rising terror of this film is wonderfully slow-burning, as all great haunted house stories should be, but this is ultimately more than just a haunted house story. As Mike begins to obsessively listen to the session tapes of former patient Mary Hobbes, from which the film gets its title, the others begin to gradually sense that something is wrong in this place and that all of their lives may be in danger. It is almost as though the playing of the tapes has summoned an ancient evil that has been lying dormant in the hospital, though the true revelation is far more intelligent and less cheesy than that might sound. Session 9 never takes the easy or expected way out, instead opting to sink its claws deep into the viewer’s brain for a more deeply haunting experience. The film’s final moments especially will really stick with you, and may even give you your own case of nyctophobia for days afterward.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Earth Girls Are Easy

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

In an oddball blend of ’50s science fiction classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still, combined with much stronger elements of beach musicals and screwball comedy, director Julien Temple‘s Earth Girls Are Easy explores interplanetary sexual politics with a light and infectiously fun touch. This is one of those ’80s movies, much like The Lost Boys, that is objectively silly and perhaps unimportant to the history of cinema, but is nonetheless one of my favorite movies of all time.

Valerie (Geena Davis) is a sort of ditzy manicurist who works at beauty parlor in San Fernando Valley with her gloriously superficial and oversexed friend Candy (co-writer Julie Brown). After discovering her physician fiancée, Ted (Charles Rocket), attempting to cheat on her with a nurse he brings home, she kicks him out and wrecks most of his belongings in a musical montage of destruction and bittersweet flashbacks of the better times they spent together. Of all the film’s musical numbers, this is the weakest, but still great visual fun and prime ’80s nostalgia, as when Valerie shoves a box of Ted’s cigars into the VCR, or when she sends a bowling ball crashing into his Commodore 64 computer. As if her relationship troubles aren’t bad enough, the next morning a spaceship full of furry, horny aliens lands in her pool, and Valerie has to figure out how to keep them secret until they can fix their flooded ship and head back to their home planet.

The aliens are Mac (Jeff Goldblum), Zeebo (Damon Wayans) and Wiploc (Jim Carrey), and of course the solution to the problem of how to hide their alien identity is a makeover. Candy assists, removing the aliens’ colorful fur and revealing “three major cute guys” underneath. Valerie falls for Mac in particular, becoming enamored with his innocent, childlike ways, a result of the culture clash experienced by all three aliens, which is a major source of the film’s comedy. In perhaps the funniest scene in the movie, Zeebo and Wiploc, en route to a beach trip with Valerie’s aging surfer pool cleaner, Woody (Michael McKean), take his suggestion that they pick up “bread and junk” for sandwiches very literally. Brandishing a realistic toy gun accidentally stolen from a child earlier, they tell the frightened cashier, “Give us bread. We need junk.”

Though Earth Girls Are Easy could fairly be labeled predictable and certainly inconsequential, it has an undeniable charm, and only the severely humor-deficient will be unable to find something to like about it. For whatever reason, this movie is actually something of an addiction for me, a film I have to rewatch at least once a year or so in order to feel that all is right with the universe, to remind me that even with all the problems of the planet earth, at least its female humans don’t play too hard to get.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Red State

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.

Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”

As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.

One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.

Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.

  

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