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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A chat with Gale Anne Hurd, producer of “The Walking Dead”

Gale Anne Hurd, producer of There aren’t many producers around these days whose name can help sell a movie or TV show, but Gale Anne Hurd is the rare exception. Probably best known as one of the co-creators of “The Terminator” franchise, Hurd has been an important player in numerous mega- or merely major productions, including both “Hulk” and “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Abyss,” “Armageddon,” “The Punisher,” and the underrated 1999 comedy “Dick,” which starred Dan Hedaya as Richard Milhous Nixon and a young Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as a couple of teenagers who wind up bringing down a presidency.

Clearly one of the more hands-on producers around, Hurd is pleasant and businesslike when talking to a member of the show-biz press, but clearly has the gumption to deal with the biggest and most difficult of personalities, which is how I segue into the obligatory mention of the fact that she spent the part of the late eighties and early nineties being married to first James Cameron and then Brian De Palma. Moreover, she began her career working for one the most fascinating and effective producers in the history of the medium, Roger Corman, but more of that in the interview.

Still, nothing she’s done is quite like her current project, the zombie horror drama and comic book adaptation, “The Walking Dead.” The AMC television series, adapted from a series of acclaimed comics by Robert Kirkman primarily by writer-director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Mist”) is currently receiving maximum exposure on the web. The publicity train was only just getting started when I spoke to Ms. Hurd at a mammoth new San Diego hotel adjacent to the Comic-Con festivities last summer.

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I had typed my questions on my laptop, which I was afraid might be a little off-putting. So, after a quick greeting, I tried to explain why.

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Rock ‘n Roll High School

Ultra-canny low-budget producer Roger Corman originally wanted to make “Disco High School.” Thank the rock gods hipper heads prevailed. Directed by Allan Arkush with assists from Jerry Zucker and Joe Dante, 1979’s “Rock ‘n Roll High School” is the cartoonish tale of the literally explosive results of the arrival of original punk rockers The Ramones at Vince Lombardi High. Free spirited hipster Riff Randle (P.J. Soles) and her straight-arrow best pal Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) must evade fun-hating Principal Togar (Mary Woronov) if they are to party down with two-chord musical geniuses Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky Ramone. Meanwhile, besotted but romantically inept football player Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) enlists the aid of strangely suave ultra-dork entrepreneur Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) to woo Riff, unaware that the bespectacled but equally adorable Kate is the one carrying a torch for him.

It’s even sillier and messier than it sounds, but it all comes together, more or less, because of the likable chaos fostered by Arkush, a dominating performance by actress/performance artist Woronov who gets the film’s best lines — “Does your mother know you’re Ramones?” — a generally amazing cast, and, most of all, the music and presence of the aforementioned Ramones, three of its four members now sadly deceased. Featuring lots of performance footage — alas, in very low-fi monophonic sound — this is a big, sloppy kiss to the rock and roll spirit. It may not be the funniest comedy ever made, but it’s close enough for punk.

Click to buy “Rock and Roll High School”

  

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I’ve got those midweek movie news blues

Leonardo DiCaprio* It’s not really new news and I even posted about it before, but Mike Fleming has returned to the possibility that Leonardo DiCaprio may eventually be undertaking the role of John D. MacDonald’s great gumshoe, Travis McGee. However, there’s more this time around. If DiCaprio strikes a lot of us as a counter-intuitive pick for the laid-back, heroic tough guy, the choice of possible director seems even stranger: Oliver Stone. Stone’s often hyperactive style simply strikes me as wrong, unless he can turn himself into Howard Hawks or Clint Eastwood or someone more in that vein.

Still, my discomfort is nothing compared to Drew McWeeney, who is obviously a huge, huge fan of the books and who read a script that he was none too fond of — though it’s been so long since I’ve read the books that I’m so sure why introducing McGee on a surfboard is all that terrible. However, I do remember McGee as being more a fishing-with-his-buddy-Meyer-while sipping-whiskey kind of a guy. By the way, if they don’t cast Paul Giamatti as Meyer, the world just doesn’t really make any sense.

* If some people are made nauseous by the camera work in the Bourne movies, how many more will be made ill if the approach is set in some guy’s bloodstream and in James Cameron-style immersive 3-D? It appears we may be finding out because director Paul Greengrass, whose high-budgetted “Green Zone” has been a commercial and critical disappointment, is “in talks” to be the director on the Cameron-produced 3-D remake of “Fantastic Voyage.” I’m thinking about buying shares in whoever manufactures Dramamine.

* Screenwriters, playwrights, aspiring TV scribes — are you ready for Script Frenzy? I just found out about it. Remember, there are only thirty days in April and the goal is 100 pages.

* Big news for this movie mad, West L.A. bred Bruin boy. Regency chain has purchased the endangered, historic twin single-screen movie theaters that anchor UCLA-adjacent Westwood Village, the appropriately named Fox Village and Bruin theaters. The chain recently let go of an important neighborhood theater a couple of miles east which was turned into a triplex back in the eighties or early nineties, the Fairfax, which anchors the traditionally Jewish neighborhood that is home to Canter’s Deli. Win a few, lose a few, I guess.

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http://www.gq.com/entertainment/celebrities/201001/william-shatner-captain-kirk-interview?printable=true

* GQ’s Andrew Corsello has a very cool piece up about William Shatner and his battles with irony. But if anyone out there has seen him in Roger Corman’s sole non-genre film, “The Intruder,” they know there was a time when he was a very good actor who could it keep it fairly simple, even playing a villainous antihero, back in 1962.

* I’m a little late on this, but Steven Spielberg absolutely does not, repeat, does not, have Asperger’s Syndrome. In other news, I can now announce that I am 100% free of ovarian cancer.

* Bryan Cranston, star of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and also the upcoming “John Carter of Mars” is a popular guy around these parts. He’s currently “eying” a part in “Larry Crowne,” the upcoming Tom Hanks starring/directed by dramedy co-starring Julia Roberts and written with Nia Vardalos of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The character in question is  Roberts’ husband, whose a blogger who spends way too much time “looking at” porn. I wouldn’t know anything about that.

  

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Oscar Postscript

Well, as far as the show itself is concerned, my moderately upbeat assessment of it in last night’s live blog seems to have me in the minority. Certainly, my old fellow-in-film-blogging, Brian Doan, found plenty to dislike as did Roger Ebert in his Twitter feed, and even I’m likely to agree that either Martin or Baldwin alone might have been funnier than the two of them together. There were a number of very professionally done and actually funny tandem gags after their initial notably rough start — but, yeah, much of the material — from who else but Bruce Vilanch — wasn’t that much fresher than stuff from the Bob Hope era.

As for other complaints, I don’t disagree. On the other hand, from where I sit doofy production numbers are par for the course and part of the fun. Less fun are film montages that too often seem to miss the point of the genres of they are celebrating, but they are a tradition as well, except when Chuck Workman’s involved, anyhow.

Brian Doan and I definitely agree about the short shrift given to Governor’s Award winners Lauren Bacall, Roger Corman, and Gordon Willis and, having read a number of negative comments at various reportorial, geek, and cinephile blogs, I wonder if I went easy on any number of things including Mo’Nique’s somewhat defiant/entitled acceptance speech, which I reviewed more like a performance than for content. I certainly did go very easy on the evening’s one obvious moment of weirdness but I’d rather do that leap to a conclusion about something I really don’t know anything about.

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And there’s also the fact that I just like the Oscars. Every year when people complain about the show, I’m always scratching my head and I’m equally flummoxed by the outsized praise certain years get. I’m always entertained by these particular awards because, whether or not I agree with the awards or the nominations, the results will have a pretty crucial effect on any number of careers and that’s more than enough suspense for me.

However, with three locks in the acting nominations, there was less of that for me than usual. If it had been up to me, many awards would have been different. The fact of the matter is, though I intend to take a second look at both of them, neither “Avatar” nor “The Hurt Locker” really grabbed me in a strongly emotional way. Objectively, though, I’m pretty sure “The Hurt Locker” is the better, or at least the less-flawed and vastly more intelligent, film. I’m glad it won, if only because it’s probably the least fiscally successful film to win the Best Picture award but seems to earn praise from almost everyone who sees it. It’s an award for quality, not marketing and I appreciate that even if my own tastes run more towards “Inglourious Basterds” and, to a somewhat lesser degree, “Up in the Air.”

Anyhow, just in case anyone out there needs an update, below the jump are a complete list of awards and nominees that I promise you I did not simply cut and paste from someplace.

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