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Revisiting the Madness of “Birdemic”

Revisiting the Madness of “Birdemic” (photo)

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One of the greatest worst movies ever made, “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” comes out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow (you can also rent it from Netflix). In commemoration of this historic day, here is my feature on the film’s New York City premiere in March of 2010.

A few minutes past midnight on Friday, a man in a gray suit and bright red tie took to the stage of the IFC Center’s Theater One and, to the applause of the sold-out audience, proudly waved a wire coat hanger in the air like an athlete brandishing the Olympic torch. This borderline deranged behavior would only draw an enthusiastic positive response at two places: a Joan Crawford impersonators’ convention or the New York City premiere of “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” a eco-horror romantic thriller that has been dubbed “the next hilariously great cult movie” by no less an appropriate outlet than Vulture.com.

The hanger-wielding man in the suit was “Birdemic” writer/director James Nguyen, a software salesman by day who boasted that he “went to the film school of Hitchcock cinema” during the introductory Q & A. Arguably, he also could’ve attended the film school of Ed Wood cinema, since “Birdemic” feels far more indebted to Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” with its blend of ultra-low budget filmmaking and cuckoo bananas ecological message, than anything by the Master of Suspense.

To be clear: I mean that as a compliment. I was laughing so hard that tears were running down my face even before the end of the opening credits sequence, which blends title cards like “Moviehead Pictures Presents… A Moviehead Production” with the most artless, endless and pointless driving scenes since “Manos: The Hands of Fate.” “Birdemic” is the rare film worthy of comparison to “Plan 9,” “Troll 2,” “Battlefield Earth” and “The Room” as one of the best bad movies ever made. A still of any of its laughably unconvincing bird-related special effects would be the ideal illustration in any reprinting of Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’, “ particularly if placed alongside the paragraph that reads:

“In naïve, or pure, Camp the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

Ed Wood had aliens threaten mankind for their use of atomic energy. Nguyen has two different characters — an ornithologist and a treehouse-dwelling hippie — deliver subtlety-free pro-environment monologues that pin the blame for the avian chaos on mankind’s wasteful habits. During his introduction, Nguyen cribbed from an old Jack Warner line in his claim that the film was “not here to send a message. If I wanted to do that I’d use a post office.” Yet “Birdemic”‘s shock and terror is rooted in a kind of didactic ecological panic that makes M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” look relatively cogent in comparison.

My own personal measuring stick for camp movie greatness has five dimensions: poor acting, bad dialogue, enormous plot holes, technically incompetent filmmaking, and inexplicable personal touches indicative of the naïve passion Sontag talked about. “Birdemic” hits them all. It has a leading man (Alan Bagh) who always looks like he just woke up from a nap. It has lines of dialogue like “That was a great movie! ‘An Inconvenient Truth!'” It has characters who make hilariously bad decisions, like stopping for a leisurely outdoor picnic in the middle of a bird invasion. It has a timeline that makes absolutely no sense — in one implausible and very busy week, the hero makes $1 million when his software company is acquired by Oracle, invents a new kind of non-silicon-based solar panel, builds a start-up company around it, convinces a venture capitalist to invest $10 million in his idea, gets a new girlfriend and is attacked by hundreds of eagles and vultures. Finally, “Birdemic” has maybe the worst sound mix of any film that has ever received a theatrical release in major venues around the country. (You know what the last line of the film is? Me neither. I couldn’t hear it over the sound of the wind howling through the microphone.)

And it’s all done in support of Nguyen’s deeply felt and clumsily delivered lefty politics, which come through in the go-green speechifying, the character who repeatedly wears an ImaginePeace.com T-shirt, and a bunch of interminable driving scenes which initially seem to exist only to pad the running time but are ultimately revealed as a poorly chosen stab at social commentary. The characters in “Birdemic” literally drive themselves to death, a clunky Woodian metaphor for the message Nguyen insists he’s not sending. It was just as the director predicted in his introduction. “After they make love,” he told us, “when the eagles and vultures attack, you will understand why the eagles and vultures attack.”

Nguyen was referring to the “they” of Bagh’s software salesman Rod and Whitney Moore’s aspiring lingerie model Nathalie, who’s having an impressive week herself. She goes from a photo shoot in a strip mall film development lab straight to the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Incredible! Although Nguyen insisted “there’s foreboding, there’s foreshadowing” during Rod and Nathalie’s courtship, other than a few ominous news reports and one dead bird at the beach, there’s no warning of impending birdoom until Rod and Nathalie consummate their relationship in a sex scene that ends with a pan down to the couple playing footsie. The next morning, they awake — she in her underwear and he fully dressed (including his belt!) — to the sounds of birdestruction.

In the resulting panic, Rod and Nathalie run into a couple who, without immediate explanation, just happen to have a bunch of assault rifles in their van. (The infamous wire hangers are the weapon of choice to fend off the birds until they can reach the guns). They flee the birdevastation in their California hometown of Half Moon Bay and stop at a car crash, where they somehow know a boy is hiding inside the trunk of one of the vehicles even though everyone else in the car is dead and he doesn’t make any noise.

Instead of seeking safety somewhere birds couldn’t get them — say, a building with a large concrete basement — Rod and Nathalie’s strategy for avoiding birds is to go to all the places birds like to hang out, like the beach or the forest, and run away from them. Do these people deserve to die? I wouldn’t go that far. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say they deserve to live, either.

Asked what he hoped people would take away from his film, Nguyen said, “After 90 minutes, after good laughs and being entertained, I hope some of you walk away thinking.” The crowd, which applauded, cheered, rhythmically clapped, groaned and laughed throughout “Birdemic” lingered in the lobby long after the film ended, huddled in groups, talking enthusiastically about the experience. At least one viewer walked away thinking something — that he had seen something truly remarkable. And if birds start to kill people, the beach is probably not the safest place to hide.

UPDATE: To promote the “Birdemic” DVD, director James Ngyuen spoke with The Wall Street Journal and mentioned he is working on a “Birdemic” sequel, the awkwardly titled “Birdemic 2: The Resurrection 3-D.” Nguyen told WSJ‘s Todd Gilchrist, “We’re shooting in real 3-D with actual 3-D equipment, and I’ve completely mastered the art of 3-D cinematography.” I would make a joke here, but do I really need to?

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.