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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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