Rob Dean examines the overlooked, unappreciated or unfairly maligned movies. Sometimes these films haven't been seen by anyone, and sometimes they've been seen by everyone - who loathed them. This is Missing Reels.
The dilemma of the critic has always been that if he knows enough to speak with authority, he knows too much to speak with detachment.
- Raymond Chandler
You, the critic, the professional appreciator, putting something new into the world.
- High Fidelity
It would be easy to say that the one thing all great art has in common is that it is built on passion. In fact, I just said it. But, while I believe that's true, it sounds too facile, too simplistic. More over, it sounds like the problem with bad art is a lack of passion - when that's usually not the case. I would propose all great works of art are passionate projects of the artist but not all passionate projects of the artist are great works of art. Passion drives artists to realize their visions in their chosen medium - it's what makes them resolute despite the very real possibility that what they are working on is shit and that no one will even notice it let alone like it. Such cockeyed determination can be a good thing when the artist transcends convention and presents something new, something rewarding. Or it can be a bad thing when the artists are so insulated by sycophants and slavish devotion to their visions that they end up ignoring the reality of just how much their creation sucks.
Another hallmark of artists that has its share of positives and negatives is a deep knowledge and history of the art form within which they are working. Even if the artist's intent is to do something never seen before and completely revolutionize his medium - he has to know what has been seen before in order to be certain of his originality. Most successful artists have an extensive knowledge of everything that preceded them - it's how they're able to build on the shoulders of these giants, to make a name for themselves while acknowledging the history that led to this moment. It seems this has never been more evident than in film, first with the Film Brats (De Palma, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola) of the 70s who were raised on Hollywood and sought to invert expectations and then continuing on the tradition through to Tarantino, Takashi Miike and the Dogme 95 movement of the 90s and early 2000s. The idea of the critic, that person with an encyclopedic knowledge of something, becoming the artist - taking knowledge and turning it into action - is a long standing tradition with various degrees of success. Sometimes homages, mash-ups and revisions end up elevating the original works referenced while creating a unique entry that stands along side those classics. Sometimes they are nothing more than rip-offs built on a checklist of references and winks, missing the intangible soul and spark of originality that inspired the critic turned artist.
When these two aspects of artists collide to form the synthesis of the passionate critic as artist, it can be a thrilling thing to behold. For the most part, criticism offers the enticing proposition of safety - critics are reflecting on other people exposing their thoughts, not risking something wholly their own. So for a critic to shrug off the security of the peanut gallery and boldly hold themselves up for criticism by their former peers, it's a courageous feat that can be as awesome as it is painful. Feeding Frenzy (2010), comes from Red Letter Media, a group of people who became well known for their criticism but who displayed a level of passion that makes it easy to be charmed by the end result.
Red Letter Media is an outfit that came to prominence - at least for me - with its epic reviews of the Star Wars prequels. These 90 minute reviews were hilarious and twisted, offering original approaches to well worn territory like dissecting Star Wars. In fact, I know there are literally hours of footage online of people bitching about Star Wars, bitching about the prequels, bitching about bitching about the prequels, etc. So what makes these reviews stand out isn't the subject matter or the minutiae explored - it's the way these critics systematically go through all the aspects of film (and, indeed, all art forms) to reveal why the movies are so problematic to so many. By looking at structure, characterization, plot, dialogue, design and a host of other elements, Red Letter Media brings an intelligence and depth to a conversation that usually begins or ends with "Jar Jar sucks."
What made it so easy to digest - even in its long form - was that this intelligence was wrapped up in a deliberately subversive package in the narrator - Mister Plinkett. A sexual deviant with a checkered past, some clear mental issues and a predilection towards pizza rolls, Mister Plinkett is a very unique and ugly character that is as disgusting as he is endearing. Often messing up pronunciations of words or flashing back to episodes of psychotic rage, Plinkett is both a moron and a sage - he's dumb sounding, but his words are incredibly precise and poignant.
I'm a big fan of these video reviews and so I was skeptically optimistic when I saw they had made a horror movie. The response to the line of attack of "well, if you know so much why don't you make a movie?" lobbed at critics has had mixed results (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, anyone?). And since this is a small budget outfit from the Midwest who had made its with a scathing review of a beloved group of movies, there was an audience too ready to hate Feeding Frenzy. And Feeding Frenzy is by no means a great movie, or perfect, or even technically competent. It's not the leg sweep that shows Lucas how this movie shit is done - but it's not intended to be, either.
Feeding Frenzy is a horror comedy that tips its hat to various films that have come before while displaying a unique and affable sensibility. It's the cinematic equivalent of a small town bar band doing Journey covers - competent if a bit rote, but mostly just a fun time with friends. An homage to many horror movie staples, Feeding Frenzy most obviously cribs from the rash of "little creatures run amuck in small town" that were everywhere in the 80s.
The plot of the movie isn't that important but in a quick summary: Jesse Camp (no, not the strung out MTV VJ) is a loser who works in Mr. Plinkett's hardware store while pining for Christine, who is dating the greatest man in the world, Kyle. Jesse thinks Mr. Plinkett may be up to some devious shit in his basement and eventually uncovers a host of tiny, ravenous Madball looking things. Jesse, Christine and others band together to defeat the creatures and foil Plinkett's dastardly plan. Hilarity ensues.
In the first 30 minutes there are visual references to the films of Kevin Smith, Stanley Kubrick and Sam Raimi (amongst others). But the movie isn't really about submitting a new entry in the canon of film or showing off how much the filmmakers know about movies - though they are enough tips of hats that act as dog whistles to nerds like myself. So if it's not about plot, or about being a great Film - then what is it about? It's about being a fun movie that co-opts nostalgia of 80s horror movies while having a lot of great dialogue and quirky comedies. There's no reason for the seemingly random slow motion pillow fight between three women in underwear, but its exaggeration is hilarious. There's tons of odd character moments and actions that are absurd and would be more at home in Wet Hot American Summer than in The Howling. Why does (Co-writer and co-director) Mike Stoklasa play a second character wrapped in bloody bandages in a hate filled marriage to an angry russian bride? Because it's funny and allows him an opportunity to mispronounce "rabies."
Make no mistake, this is a bunch of friends making a movie that they'll find funny or look fondly at, marveling at what they were able to accomplish. Some jokes fall flat, some effects are awful (intentionally so, but still not that funny), some performances are wooden and appropriately amateurish. But there are a great many lines that I find myself repeating and numerous memorable scenes filled with truly great performances that I hope lead to more work for the actors. In particular, Gillian Bellinger is a comedic revelation as Christine the unattainable hot girl. She has some of the best line readings and reactions in any comedy I've seen. I hope she is quickly discovered, embraced and eventually oversaturate the media so everyone turns on her. Mike Stoklasa is great as Gary (the non-bandaged character he plays), the apathetic asshole that seems content to just shit on everyone around him.
And Rich Evans as Mr. Plinkett has some great business - particularly anything in the hardware store or involving the wheelchair. Lora Story as "Maris Hilton" the foulmouthed, irate Russian bride that hates her husband with a passion, is very entertaining. She was in a recent episode of Red Letter Media's "Half in the Bag" film review series and revealed that she's not just hilarious but also smart and beautiful too. Clearly, she must be destroyed. Lastly, my favorite character, Larry, has a small handful of scenes but is pretty amazing in them - I perk up every time he stumbles onto the screen.
From critics to creators, Red Letter Media has shown their passion for film - their deep understanding of the basic structures and tenets of the medium. They choose to subvert it occasionally, masking their intelligence behind funny voices and jokes about suicide, but it still shines through. Not many people have heard of this movie, and many more would probably not like it as it seems to be aimed at a niche audience. But for that audience, this is an incredibly pleasant experience that will leave them hopeful for the future and greatly anticipating the next film. I know I can't wait.
What's wrong with your face - what's wrong with your face, indeed.
(nsfw with some language)
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