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SXSW: Quint takes a look at TROLL 2 documentary BEST WORST MOVIE and warns you off of midnighter PONTYPOOL!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. As of this very moment I have 30 films scheduled for SXSW, which doesn’t sound like much (at Sundance I usually hit between 40 and 50), but I also have a handful of flicks I caught early and some really great interviews lined up during the fest. I have two films I want to talk about. I was going to review them both separately, but the second review isn’t very positive and I don’t want to dwell on it. It is, afterall, a small flick that was made without a whole lot of resources, but I’m also in the position of wanting attendees to know what kind of movie it is before they dedicate themselves to it. So first up is a movie I liked quite a bit, a documentary about the making of cult classic TROLL 2 called BEST WORST MOVIE.

I’m not one of the initiated when it comes to TROLL 2. In fact, I didn’t watch it all the way through until earlier this week in preparation for BEST WORST MOVIE. I grew up with the original film and have a deep nostalgia for that. It doesn’t hold up too well, but I’ll tell you something… it’s still really creepy and far more fucked up than it should have been with talking mushroom plants, the crazed mom from LOST IN SPACE and Sonny Bono camping it up. I can definitely see the entertainment value of TROLL 2, but I always feel bad with movies like this. It’s clear that it’s not intentionally bad, but the acting is so through the floor horrible, the writing so bizarrely off-kilter and every aspect of direction misguided that what we’re left with is what most consider So Bad It’s Good. That’s a tricky label. In TROLL 2’s case I think it fits. It’s a movie where the entertainment value is had by watching a film so spectacularly crash in a fiery way, despite the best intentions of the people making it. Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER are accused of being this type of movie, but there’s something pure about the love of the format that transcends the label even to this day. I suppose it’s accurate to describe those efforts from Wood in that way, but it doesn’t sit well with me. There’s something different between the two that I can’t quite lock down. It might be as simple as the time period they were made. Anyway, what I really don’t like about the So Bad It’s Good label is that it’s applied to genuinely good films that succeed exactly as they were meant to by people too ignorant to recognize that when they’re laughing while watching they’re laughing with the film, not at it. I don’t want to belabor this particular example (I’ve used it before), but the film I always bring up is THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, which gets slapped with that So Bad It’s Good label. Can you honestly watch that movie and think the filmmakers aren’t intending to be funny with Dr. Scott? Can't you tell that Richard O'Brien is not only in on the joke, but telling it? That Brad and Janet’s over-the-top performances aren’t a throwback to the kinds of films O’Brien watched in his youth? I mean, for God’s sake… the opening credits song name-checks a dozen cheesy (and not so cheesy)‘50s sci-fi flicks. And there is a difference between cheesy movies and bad movies. Often times they can be both, but in most cases the camp is very intentional. As a lover of exploitation films of all kinds from the ‘70s and ‘80s it angers me that people misunderstand the intent of those films and laugh at them instead of with them. So, mini-rant over. I just wanted to be clear that I’m not a fan of So Bad It’s Good, but there are a few films that I can see why people label them as such and Troll 2 is definitely one of those movies. Interestingly enough, the director of this documentary BEST WORST MOVIE is none other than Michael Stephenson, who played the boy in TROLL 2, the film’s lead. He starts out wanting to explore why the movie failed so spectacularly and document the grass roots underground fan movement as the now twentysomething kids who rented the video over and over again or watched the film obsessively on cable as a form of party entertainment come of age. They use their nostalgia to bring this film back from the dead at revival screenings and DVD or video parties.

We focus on George Hardy, the now over-the-hill guy who played the father in the movie. He’s the backbone of the doc. An Alabama boy, the man is almost like Forrest Gump. His enthusiasm for life and the way he interacts with those around him is almost childlike and definitely carries at the very least a child’s innocent outlook at the world. George is a successful dentist and well-known and liked in his small community. Every once in a while he runs into someone who has seen TROLL 2, but he doesn’t really shout his involvement from the rooftops. He loved the experience, but the movie was horrible… and he was horrible in it. He makes no bones about it and neither does his mother, friends or ex-wife. They all admit without any hesitation that the movie is bad. But then a few things happen. He starts a MySpace page and gets more friends than his teenage daughter, people showering him and TROLL 2 with praise. Then he’s invited to be a guest of honor at an Upright Citizens Brigade screening of the DVD with a small crowd. They eat him up, cheering him on as he spews out lines from the movie… he signs tons of autographs, takes tons more pictures and gets a taste of the adoration he clearly hoped he would get by being an actor. That’s not a knock against the guy. I’m not saying he had an expectation of it, but definitely a hope. And there’s no doubt that vindication after all these years isn’t welcome. By this time you genuinely like George and seeing his huge grin will make you smile yourself. Slowly more and more of the cast from the film becomes involved traveling all over the country, including to our own Alamo Drafthouse, to bigger and bigger screenings and events and even more adoring fans. If the documentary had just been a celebration of themselves it would have gotten very old very quickly, but the real fascinating side to this documentary is how this popularity is a mirage, that the fandom is limited to a select niche. Once again, we see this mostly through the eyes of George Hardy, who has now taken to showing his patients his movie while drilling their cavities and quoting his most popular cheesy lines to anybody who will listen. He starts seeing that less and less people care. He then tries desperately to regain that adoration and books himself at a couple of different horror conventions to do a panel and autograph signings. This is where we see good old innocent George crack a little bit. He gets angry and bitter. It’s actually painful to watch, which is a testament to the documentary. I cared about George by this point and didn’t like seeing the ebbing limelight change him from the nice, carefree goofball he was. There is redemption, but I won’t go into too much more of the plot. I do want to point out another fascinating character, that of Italian director Claudio Fragasso who is as conflicted as one man can be about the resurgence of his film TROLL 2. On one hand he’s a filmmaker and loves that his work is still alive and entertaining. But on the other hand he’s upset that people are laughing at the movie, the man completely in denial about the kind of film he made.

He still believes it’s a good movie and takes it personally when his cast talk about the hell of making the movie and difficulty of trying to say the dialogue Claudio’s wife, Rossella Drudi, wrote. It’s actually very fascinating. I can imagine Claudio being Uwe Boll in 20 years, thinking people love his movies because a bunch of college kids get together to laugh at it. And that brings us back to my main problem with the So Bad It’s Good label. I was discussing this with my friend Kraken and he was saying it just feels mean, a snide side of fandom. That’s not everybody who loves TROLL 2, but it’s a great many of the people we see in the documentary. Is it forgivable that they take this well-intentioned work and laugh at it because that very act brings the same kind of enjoyment that Claudio was hoping to convey? That’s a tough question to answer and one that I think really lies at the center of this documentary. I can’t have a blanket opinion on it. I consider it on a movie by movie basis, but I can say that if I like a movie I generally am not ashamed of that opinion, so most movies I like I would never call guilty pleasures or so bad it’s good. There are exceptions. Like DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, for instance. I own that on DVD specifically because I had so much fun at the theater when I saw it, but I haven’t watched it since picking it up for $1.99. It’s just not how I like watching movies. I love film and respect the process of bringing one to fruition, even if they ultimately disappoint or fail. I don’t watch movies to make fun of them. There are a great deal who do (and they almost always fucking sit behind me at the movie theater). This review is getting long-winded and I haven’t even gotten to the next film yet, but rest assured that’ll be a quick review. Let me wrap up by saying that the sequences of Claudio re-directing scenes with his actors are amazingly insightful to what these poor guys had to put up with while shooting, discovering the cast members person by person if a fascinating look at different personalities, including one featured extra who was literally getting a permit to leave a mental institution to work on the film and how the film ultimately critiques the effects of popularity and just how fleeting and unreal it can be all wraps up into one extremely entertaining documentary about a very entertaining movie. Plus it has appearances by the Alamo’s own Tim League and Zack Carlson (who has a Troll 2 tattoo he’s so into the movie) as well as online superstar Scott Weinberg. Here’s a clip reel culled from YouTube for those who have never been exposed to Troll 2:

Next film I want to discuss is a midnight feature at SXSW called PONTYPOOL.

Oh Pontypool, Pontypool, Pontypool. The reason I’m taking the time to talk about this movie, which I didn’t like much at all, is because it’s a dangerous film during a film festival. This is a midnight film playing against a lot of really interesting looking genre films for one and more than anything the beginning leads you to believe you’re in for a good movie. But when it does a complete 180 about an hour in you are trapped. The poker announcers would call this being pot-committed. You have too much invested into the movie to just leave and get some precious sleep, especially if you’re at the Alamo Drafthouse and have already ordered a pizza or a beer or something. What you have with this movie is a great set-up for a classic, low-budget zombie movie. It’s a snowy winter morning in rural Canada when aging shock jock Grant Mazzy goes to work. His no-holds-barred attitude has gotten him bounced from a big audience and he has to take a job at a small radio station, being the morning personality. Mazzy is played by Stephen McHattie who was recently Hollis Mason in WATCHMEN and had a really good part in another indie flick I saw recently called YOU MIGHT AS WELL LIVE (read my review here) and McHattie does a fine job in the lead. He’s rugged, aged… has the perfect radio voice.

In the booth with him are two women, one his producer and the other handling most of the tech and research stuff for him. The film does open well. I thought it was an incredibly smart way to make a Romero style zombie movie on a budget. We follow these three characters in one room as the initial reports of “mobs” gathering and riots happening in their small town… and as the Canadian government steps into play, other news outlets contact them for inside information since the rest of the world’s media is locked out... interesting stuff. But then when you find out what is actually happening, which coincides with the arrival of someone I’ll call Dr. Exposition, you will sit in a state of shocked disbelief for a few minutes before it really sinks in what they’re trying to make the threat of the movie. First I denied it, then I tried to figure it out and it is so fucking ridiculous that the movie just instantly deflated and the last 45 minutes dragged on and on and on as the characters started saying more and more stupid shit. I’m not kidding when I say it starts to turn into a weird poetry jam by the last reel, with the last 40 minutes featuring Dr. Exposition babbling on and on and digging the hole deeper and deeper. The film’s look is good, if overly digital. But it’s a pretty sharp movie. The lead actor is cast perfectly, the characters and their interactions at the beginning lead you believe you’re in for a good, well-thought-out movie. That’s why I said this film is dangerous. This isn’t something you know is crappy right off the bat. This film is a sleep thief at SXSW and I wanted to do my part to at least get the warning out there. Now, some might disagree with me. That’s fine. I watched the screener on a large, hi-def TV with a group of about 5 people, all of wildly different backgrounds and approaches to films, but not one person here thought this film was anything better than fatally frustrating. However, I will say I am very conscious of approaching this film expecting it to be something completely different. I hate it when reviewers want a movie to be something it wasn’t meant to be and hold that against the movie, so I worry I was doing that as the movie unfolded. I will say if the threat had been revealed as something that wasn’t butt-fuck ridiculous I know I could have rolled with it. My problem isn’t with this film switching gears on me. I actually love movies that do that, challenge my expectation, but this one certainly pulled some unforgivable bullshit to such a degree that I now feel compelled to warn SXSW attendees off of it. Here’s a trailer that might trick you into thinking it’s a decent movie:

Director Bruce McDonald obviously has a good eye for composition and is clearly able to recognize quality actors, but I think this film (based on a novel) was fatally flawed from inception with a zombie, but not really threat that is ridiculous to start with then just goes over the moon when the characters try to figure out how to fight it. So, those are my thoughts. Now it’s 5am and I have a full day of movies and interviews tomorrow. Yikes. But two reviews down. I have also seen MOON (really damn good), ADVENTURELAND (really damn good), THE SQUARE (just really good) and ANVIL (pretty awesome) playing the fest. I reviewed ANVIL when I saw it at SUNDANCE last year, so you won’t get another review of that from me, but I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on the rest, plus what I catch tomorrow (schedule right now is Tim McCanlies’ THE 2 BOBS, THE SNAKE and ONG MuthaFuckin’ BAK 2!). Stay tuned! -Quint

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