It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S., and like many of you, we at Front Row Central are spending the day with friends, loved ones and family we can only barely stand. Now that we’ve carved the turkeys, mashed the potatoes and watched the football, it’s time to take a moment and give thanks for all the bad movies out there that give our lives meaning. The ones that are so bad in their own unique ways that we can’t help but feel like better people because of them. Because if there’s one thing we all love more than a bad movie, it’s a bad movie with something to teach us.
JOE IS THANKFUL FOR: SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)
Believe it or not, I actually have a vivid family memory of this film. When Super Mario Bros. came out, I was seven years old, and I insisted we take my dad to see this for his birthday. For some reason, it was one of the rare occasions where my parents actually took my advice. It would be years after this debacle before they’d trust me with any important decisions. That memory is definitely not one I’m thankful for. Rediscovering Super Mario Bros. as an adult, though, I found its complete and utter tone-deafness absolutely charming. From the casting of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular siblings, to the Blade Runner-lite production design, to the singularly idiotic decision to turn goombas into seven-foot-tall trenchcoats with lizard faces, nobody would ever accuse this of being a good movie.
All the same, no one can say it isn’t at the very least ambitious. Despite a historically troubled production, what should’ve been a simple video game cash-in became a dystopian sci-fi madhouse full of junk science, pre-Jurassic Park dinosaur puppets and Dennis Hopper flying around with a flamethrower. There are too many bad plot turns and worse special effects to count, but everyone in the film is so maddeningly gung-ho about the whole thing (or just flat out drunk) that I can’t help but find the whole thing strangely endearing. As wrong as this movie’s decisions are at every single turn, God bless ‘em for trying. I’m thankful for ambitious failures like Super Mario Bros., because they taught me that no matter what kind of project I’m working on, I should always put everything I have into it. Even if you know you’re working on an unmitigated disaster, that’s no reason not to swing for the fences.
SEAN IS THANKFUL FOR: BODY OF EVIDENCE (1993)
When the rest of the crew first pitched this column, I was deep in the middle leg of my annual last-minute all-day pre-Thanksgiving errand tour. I drove around flummoxed, remembering titles and discounting them immediately. After all, I have strange appreciations for a ton of flawed films, but I love very few turkeys that aren’t currently in an oven. Then, I dipped into a parking garage and a title revealed itself like the word of God: Body of Evidence, as golden and glowing as Madonna’s soft-focus flaxen locks on its poster. This isn’t some free-range organic bird, mind you. This is forty pounds of steroids and feathers flapping and drowning in the last wave of blockbuster erotic thrillers, a genre that imploded only three years later, once potential audiences began cheating on Hollywood with the Internet. (Digression: in this imaginary meta-erotic thriller about the genre’s demise, I’d cast Madonna as Hollywood, supposedly sexy and edgy but about as bland and earnest as instant gravy, and Linda Fiorentino as the Internet, the amoral other woman who shows up uninvited for Madonna’s Thanksgiving dinner with unholy quantities of yams, tequila, and lubricant.)
Setting its terrible qualities aside, this is a film with more subtle pleasures, faint notes of persimmon dancing among the radiating brown stink lines. For one, Jürgen Prochnow’s attempt at pronouncing “memorial” (MEEE-morial) immediately signals that he’s the real villain, albeit one who would be more at home in a Bond film. Then there’s the historical context: with Madonna on hand as a woman suspected of using BDSM to kill a rich old man with a heart condition (hence the titular pun), Body of Evidence feels like a feature-length advertisement for Madonna’s coffee table book Sex and her album Erotica, both of which hit shelves three months prior and reshaped her image as BDSM’s ambassador to retail outlets everywhere. Even if sado-Madonnachism is a ridiculous and simplistic facsimile of the real thing, you’re watching, in real time, a spectrum of practices once considered unconscionable and confined to art houses get repackaged as a commercial product. And the result is a paradoxically conservative sex-positive flick that sanctifies Madonna as a self-appointed BDSM spokeswoman even as it demonizes her character for gold-digging.
… all of which brings me back to the parking garage. For most of us, it’s the most un-sexy thing imaginable, a drab stop along humanity’s soul-sucking slog towards heat death. In the bizarre universe of Body of Evidence, this becomes the site of the most outrageous sex scene to ever make it to the multiplex: Madonna … fucks … Willem Dafoe … on top of a shattered lightbulb … on the hood of someone else’s car. To truly appreciate how strange that is, gather your Thanksgiving guests around the ol’ family computer, Google “BDSM broken glass,” and marvel at how few people have actually attempted that in the two decades since Body of Evidence’s release. Oh, and since you’re already on the subject, don’t forget to goad your drunk relatives into regaling tales from their own experimental phases. After all, Thanksgiving is more than a feast — it’s an opportunity to exchange weird sex stories with your family and amass volumes of blackmail material that could grease wheels in the year to come. Anything less, and you’re doing it wrong.
MARTY IS THANKFUL FOR: THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)
Okay, this is probably cheating, as This Island Earth was featured in the theatrical release of bad-movie-celebration-fest MST3K. It’s basically the same as saying I’m thankful for bad movies in general. But … I really am. There is no doubt in my mind that if not for weekends spent riffing along with my father, often with the assistance of Mike Nelson and his robot pals, I wouldn’t have developed the skills I use here. These bad movies did more than improve relations with my father and teach me to make jokes, they taught me to appreciate hard work and recognize effort (or lack thereof).
All that said, This Island Earth is really something special. I’ve watched it a dozen times with and without riffing, and I’m still not sure I can explain the plot. For any fan of ‘50s sci-fi, you can recognize some neat and creative low-budget effects that show real effort. There’s beauty in its technicolor that almost excuses the incoherent storyline and bizarre line delivery (from recently-departed hero Rex Reason, who sported one of the best sci-fi names of all time.) If there’s a lesson to be learned from the longevity of This Island Earth, it’s that a person or thing doesn’t need to be 100% perfect to be beloved. Sometimes it’s just enough to do one thing well, and to believe in what you’re doing.
JORDAN IS THANKFUL FOR: SOUTHLAND TALES (2007)
In one of Nick Swardson’s comedy specials, he relates receiving a drunk text: “Dude… I punched my best friend in the face, broke up with my girlfriend, and shit my pants. Now I don’t know which one to take care of first.” While the better part of me condemns such stupid, dangerous, and self-destructive behavior, I can’t help but feel a guilty admiration for these kinds of bridge-burners—crossers of the Rubicon of sanity. In that spirit, I admire Richard Kelly’s nonsensical left-wing opus: Southland Tales, one of the most glorious career suicides in Hollywood history.
One can’t summarize this film without relating the churning core of lunacy beneath. Southland Tales takes place in a post-apocalyptic America, where two nuke attacks in Texas have energized the Republican Party, to the point where America has become a proudly fascist state. Seann William Scott plays twins, an amnesiac and a veteran, both of whom the film reveals as Christ figures. (The telltale sign? They can’t poop.) Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a precognitive porn star, whose screenplay for a buddy-cop movie adapts the Book of Revelation into an end of the world prophecy. Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star covered in religious tattoos. His mother-in-law (Miranda Richardson)—clearly based on Laura Bush—runs USIDent, a vast surveillance network that monitors nearly everyone, nearly all the time. The story involves time travel, global deceleration, a thumb-collecting Marxist network, a power source that taps into the Earth’s mantle, a government telepathy program, and a spontaneous lip-sync of The Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done.” It’s a gallery of half-formed ideas with one ostensibly uniting theme: Richard Kelly really, really, really hates the GOP.
The plot makes not a lick of sense unless you’ve read the three tie-in graphic novels (and even then…). But I feel thankful for this film for showing me the visceral joy and catharsis in being the truest version of yourself… even if that self is literally insane.
From all of us at Front Row Central: Happy Thanksgiving!
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