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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SXSW 2011: Super

Making an irreverent superhero movie in a post “Kick-Ass” world is a risky undertaking, although not a completely futile one. While Matthew Vaughn set the bar pretty high, and the comparisons are inevitable for any film that follows in its footsteps, it’s not the definitive superhero comedy by any stretch. Unfortunately, James Gunn’s “Super” squanders the chance to one-up “Kick-Ass” by wasting so much energy overcoming its own self-inflicted problems to ever be better than mediocre. There’s a lot of wasted potential on display, but thanks to a hilariously unhinged performance from Ellen Page, “Super” manages to rise above its drastically uneven tone to deliver an amusing, if admittedly flawed, superhero black comedy.

Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D’Arbo, a pathetic sad-sack who confesses in the opening minutes of the film that he’s only had two good things ever happen in his life: marrying recovering drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler) and assisting the police in the arrest of a bank robber. So when his wife leaves him for a sleazy drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank becomes an emotional wreck and turns to God for advice on what to do next. After he has a religious epiphany about devoting his life to fighting evil, Frank starts cleaning up the streets as the vigilante alter ego, Crimson Bolt, armed only with a wrench. But when Jacques uncovers his secret identity and puts a bounty on his head, Frank must team up with a quirky comic book store clerk named Libby (Page) to take the fight to the bad guys and rescue Sarah.

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Fans of Gunn’s previous work will be ecstatic to see so many familiar faces populating the film, including Michael Rooker as Jacques’ right-hand man, Gregg Henry as a police detective hot on the Crimson Bolt’s trail, and even Gunn himself. But the best cameo has to be Nathan Fillion, who appears as a religious superhero TV character called the Holy Avenger in an obscure but comical reference to “Bible Man.” Fillion doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but his character nonetheless plays a pivotal role in the influence that faith has on Frank’s decision to fight crime. Kevin Bacon also has lots of fun hamming it up as the slimy drug dealer, and Rainn Wilson shows genuine flashes of emotion in the lead role, but “Super” simply wouldn’t be as much fun without Ellen Page’s off-the-wall performance – especially when she’s running around the city as the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie, who finds a slightly disturbing joy in all the violence.

But while “Super” makes the most of its edgy premise at times, it suffers from an inconsistent tone that bounces between a serious drama, a dark comedy, and a goofy B-movie in the spirit of Gunn’s Troma films. He doesn’t seem to know what kind of film he wants to make, so he’s just thrown elements of all three into the pot and stirred with reckless abandon. It’s also sluggishly paced and poorly written in some areas, with Gunn’s script reading more like the fantasies of a horny teenage comic book geek than the guy behind “Slither” and “Dawn of the Dead.” Still, even with all of its flaws (of which there are plenty), “Super” has enough going for it that fans of the genre will eat it up.

  

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