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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Double Jeopardy! Potpourri

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

More often than not, I try to group reviews together into themes for these columns. This usually isn't too difficult but it does mean that from time to time I'm left with a stack of unreviewed discs that didn't fit into whatever group I was trying to shoehorn them into. So it's time once again for The Bottom Shelf-Clearing Spectacular. Five movies that have been patiently waiting to be reviewed, some for an embarassingly long time. They run the gamut this time, everything from an action movie remake to a period drama to an unclassifiable cult musical. But first, let's go sexin' with one of our favorite filmmakers here in this sketchy corner of The Digital Bits

A Dirty Shame (NC-17 Version)

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A Dirty Shame
NC-17 Version - 2004 (2005) - New Line

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/B-

Believe it or not, John Waters is now officially the new Alfred Hitchcock. No, seriously. Hear me out. There were two things that made Hitchcock Hitchcock. The first is obviously his impeccable skill as a filmmaker. Hitchcock had a style so distinct that you can be dropped into any of his movies at any point and be able to tell within minutes who directed it. The same is true for John Waters. The second thing was Hitchcock's public persona. He was one of the most recognizable filmmakers of all time, so famous that his face, voice and personality were used extensively in the ad campaigns for many of his films. And who's that peering over his shades in the corner of the cover art for A Dirty Shame? Not even Quentin Tarantino's doing that yet (he just appears on the covers of other people's movies). And fess up, wouldn't you love to see HBO or someone bankroll a weekly anthology series called John Waters Presents?

But these are strange times to be a John Waters fan. Although he's more famous than ever (thanks in large part to Hairspray - The Musical), his loyal fans have expressed disappointment over his recent work. There are those who gave up on Waters after he made the PG-rated Hairspray (the truly hardcore accused him of selling out even earlier when he made Polyester his first major studio film). And while I've enjoyed a great deal of Waters' recent work, I hated his previous film, Cecil B. Demented, with a passion. So when news came that his newest, A Dirty Shame, would be rated NC-17 and starred once-and-future Jackass Johnny Knoxville, it was hoped that it would be a return to the early John Waters of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.

Unfortunately, that hope isn't quite rewarded by the movie itself. Tracey Ullman stars as Syliva Stickles, a neuter (i.e., someone who hates sex) who is transformed into a sex addict after suffering a concussion. Blows to the head, you see, are the triggers that switch people back and forth into sex addiction. Syliva becomes the twelfth apostle of sexual healer Ray-Ray (Knoxville), the woman prophesied to discover a completely new sexual act. And that's about it, as far as story goes but that shouldn't be a problem. Waters' films aren't exactly known for their intricate plot developments.

What is a problem is that while movies like Pink Flamingos were nothing more than unending tableaux of perversions, at least each one was funnier and more extreme than the last. In A Dirty Shame, it's basically a one-joke movie. Now that joke is pretty funny and carries the movie as far as it can. The first half of the movie contains as much creative sex slang as you're ever likely to hear in a motion picture ("Now that's what I call sneezing in the cabbage!"). Waters is always able to get hilarious performances because everyone he casts genuinely wants to be in the movie and A Dirty Shame is no exception. Ullman is extremely funny (her Hokey Pokey dance is the movie's highlight), as is the rest of the cast, including straight man (so to speak) Chris Isaak and Selma Blair, almost upstaged by her freakishly large boobs as Sylvia's daughter Ursula Udders.

But A Dirty Shame isn't able to sustain itself for its brief running time. The same joke, people getting hit on the head and turning into sex addicts, gets repeated over and over again. Ultimately, the movie falls apart completely into a chaotic mess with no rhyme or reason and a grand finale that's more puzzling than anything else. But it is an improvement over Cecil B. Demented, so that's something anyway.

New Line has released two versions of A Dirty Shame: the theatrical NC-17 version and an R-rated "neuter" version that I wouldn't use to hold my drink. The NC-17 disc has some of the most extensive extras to appear on a John Waters DVD so far. What the back cover advertises as a "shocking featurette" actually turns out to be an 82-minute documentary called All the Dirt on A Dirty Shame (the movie itself runs only six minutes longer). It's an excellent piece, including helpful definitions of such practices as felching for the uninitiated. As usual, Waters contributes a funny and informative audio commentary but this time there's also a second track. However, it's not so much a commentary as it is an extended interview with such longtime Waters collaborators as Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio and Van Smith. They've been an integral part of Waters work and apart from the excellent John Waters DVD Scrapbook, we haven't heard much from them on earlier discs, so their presence is appreciated. But the value of the track is slightly diminished by the fact that large chunks of it appear in their entirety in the documentary. Still, it's worth a listen for the Waters faithful and it's probably the only time you'll hear a commentary by a greens foreman.

The rest of the extras are pretty useless, sad to say. There's a twenty second "deleted scene" which is also at the end of the documentary, the original trailer, trailers for other Waters flicks (including Pecker, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester) and the soundtrack track listing. That's right, a screen telling you the names of the songs on the soundtrack. You don't get to hear any of them or anything, of course.

So while A Dirty Shame might not be a return to form for John Waters, it is most assuredly a step in the right direction. Certainly this is not the movie to watch with your Aunt Petunia who just loved that Hairspray musical and now thinks she likes John Waters. If nothing else, A Dirty Shame proves that no matter what you may think, Waters hasn't quite sold out. Not completely, anyway. Not yet.

Assault on Precinct 13

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Assault on Precinct 13
2005 (2005) - Rogue Pictures (Universal)

Film Rating: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/C-

It's too late for this movie and The Fog but if I can ask Hollywood one favor, can we please not have any more remakes of movies until the people who made the original are dead? I know it's impossible to ask Hollywood to stop the remake madness altogether. We all know there's only about twenty stories in the world and we just hear them over and over in different ways. But come on. I'm close but I haven't quite given up on John Carpenter as an active filmmaker yet. And remaking Assault on Precinct 13 (which was already basically a remake of Rio Bravo) isn't just lazy, it seems downright disrespectful.

Anyway, Assault '05 is the American film debut of French filmmaker Jean-Francois Richet. The story has been transplanted from Los Angeles to Detroit (by way of Toronto, where the film was actually shot) and instead of a ruthless gang, our heroes are under siege by a crooked S.W.A.T. team. As in the original, the cop (played here by Ethan Hawke) has to free an incarcerated criminal (Laurence Fishburne) and rely on him if they hope to make it through the night. But while Carpenter's film was a mini-masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking, Richet's movie is a by-the-numbers action movie with no real sense of urgency or danger.

Part of the problem is switching the antagonists from gang members into cops. I guess the idea is that it would ratchet up the suspense by adding an element of paranoia to the mix (the good guys are the bad guys! How novel!). But if anything, it makes the situation less frightening because we know there's a finite number of crooked cops out there and if dawn breaks and civilians start seeing cops shooting at a precinct, people might wonder. In the original, there could be five, fifty or five hundred gang members out there. And when the sun comes up, they might just keep on coming.

A bigger problem is that Assault '05 is populated by actors who seem like they've just wandered off the sets of other movies and onto this one. Hawke acts like the script he got said Training Day II on the title page. Drea De Matteo has a fairly thankless role as a secretary with a thing for "bad boys" (I didn't even know police stations had secretaries who weren't also cops), so she can be forgiven for basically just doing her Sopranos thing. And John Leguizamo, appearing as a junkie, can probably do this kind of character in his sleep by now and attempts to do so here. As for Laurence Fishburne, this guy has got to get out of this velvet-voiced Morpheus mode. One more performance like this and he'll be ready to sell Colt 45 malt liquor with Billy Dee Williams.

Befitting such a connect-the-dots movie, the DVD is also very basic. There's a trio of guy-centric featurettes (none more than seven minutes) spotlighting the stunts, the guns and the set. You get six minutes of yawn-inspiring deleted scenes with an optional commentary by Richet telling you why they were cut in case you can't figure it out on your own. There's a 12-minute EPK piece, about half of which is devoted to summarizing the plot, and a five minute featurette interviewing the three guys on the audio commentary: Richet, screenwriter James DeMonaco and producer Jeffrey Silver. Their comments would mean a lot more if the movie were better. As it is, it's all very self-congratulatory and most of the time is spent pointing out homages to other films. Apparently Assault '05 was a dream to shoot and nobody had any problems. That's great for them but it makes for a pretty bland commentary.

I realize that the average moviegoer will probably never see John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. It was made in 1976 and it's hardly a TV staple. The only reason I saw it myself was because I was a Carpenter fan and I sought it out. Judging from his recent output, Carpenter isn't making a whole lot of new fans lately. So if you've never seen the original, you might give Assault '05 a pass. It's a far cry from the worst action movie you'll ever see. But even if you like it once, I really doubt you'll ever want to watch it again. And that is something you could never say about Carpenter's Assault.

Forbidden Zone

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Forbidden Zone
1980 (2004) - Fantoma

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A/B+

At the risk of betraying exactly how old I am, who among you remembers Night Flight? Back in the 1980s, USA Network (current home to Monk and a seemingly endless marathon of Law & Order repeats) aired some of the strangest and best TV programming ever in the wee hours of Friday and Saturday nights. Music videos by bands you'd never get to see on MTV. Social etiquette films from the 50s. And bizarro cult movies like Fantastic Planet. Now, I'm not 100% positive that I saw Forbidden Zone on Night Flight back then. The show was on at like 1:00-2:00 in the morning and I was a teenager, so any memories from then should be taken with a grain of salt. But I know I saw Forbidden Zone at some point during that time and it sure seems like the kind of mind-warping thing they'd have run on Night Flight.

Nothing you read can really prepare you for the experience of watching Forbidden Zone. Even after you've seen Forbidden Zone, a part of you wonders if it was real or if you just dreamed the whole thing. The movie tells the story of the Hercules family. They live in a house in Venice, California, with a basement portal to the sixth dimension. Overcome by curiosity, Frenchy (Marie-Pascale Elfman) enters the Forbidden Zone, discovering a world ruled by King Fausto (Herve Villechaize) and his Queen (Susan Tyrrell). Flash Hercules and Gramps attempt to rescue her, as does chicken-boy Squeezit Henderson whose twin sister Renee (both played by Toshiro Boloney, a.k.a. future director of Freeway Matthew Bright) is also a captive of King Fausto. Plus there's a frog butler, a couple of gibbering boxers played by the Kipper Kids, and an appearance by Satan himself in the form of Danny Elfman. And it's a musical. And oh yeah, some of it's animated.

If you think the above description sounds strange, the movie itself is ten times stranger. Directed by Richard Elfman (who would later make such cult movies as Shrunken Heads and Modern Vampires), Forbidden Zone is very much a love-it or hate-it type of movie. If you're on Elfman's wavelength, you'll know within minutes and you'll love the entire Forbidden Zone experience. If not, you'd might just as well turn it off after five minutes and go watch a repeat of Law & Order on USA. Forbidden Zone is a new wave Fleischer cartoon, with all the manic energy and unbridled creativity that suggests.

Fantoma does a great job with movies like this and Forbidden Zone benefits from their touch. The picture and sound have never been better. Both have been remastered and given the kind of A-list treatment usually reserved for movies with much bigger budgets. Extras include a half-hour featurette, A Look into the Forbidden Zone, with Richard Elfman and his cigar serving as ringmaster, interviewing Matthew Bright, ex-wife Marie-Pascale Elfman (who not only played Frenchy but also designed the sets), brother Danny, animator John Muto, and others. Elfman also provides an above-average commentary along with Toshiro Baloney…sorry, Matthew Bright. We also get two musical numbers from The Hercules Family, Elfman's 16mm predecessor to Forbidden Zone, 11 deleted scenes and outtakes, the theatrical trailer, and the Richard Elfman-directed music video for Oingo Boingo's Private Life (which I know for a fact I did see on Night Flight).

Forbidden Zone is the type of film that epitomizes cult movies. It isn't for everyone, that's for sure. But if the movie's peculiar vibe syncs up with yours, you feel like you're in on an inside joke that nobody else can penetrate. You cannot explain or justify enjoying Forbidden Zone. But if you do, welcome to the club, friend. You are not alone.

On to Part Two

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