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Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

In a dystopian future, organ failure has become an epidemic. Fortunately, the GeneCo Corporation and its CEO Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) have devised a solution. They will loan out new organs to those in need. However, if the customer happens to be late on a payment then GeneCo sends out the Repo Man. This hooded figure will track you down and surgically remove GeneCo’s property, and perhaps they’ll harvest the rest of you too. People become obsessed with surgery upgrades (just think what wonders a third kidney could do for you). Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) is a famous opera singer that signed a contract for new corneas. She’s now reconsidering retiring from the stage, no matter what that means. There’s also a powerful pain killer known as Zydrate that can be extracted from fresh corpses. Anyone caught robbing graves will be shot on sight.

One repo man, Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), is working to keep his daughter safe. Shilo (Alexa Vega) has a rare blood disease she inherited from her mother, who died in childbirth. Nathan must keep her locked away in order for her to survive. His daughter must never know his true identity as a repo man. Rotti is informed that he is dying from inoperable cancer. His trio of bratty, homicidally crazy children (Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, Nivek Ogre) are all fighting over who will get to run GeneCo once dad’s dead. Rotti plans a big bloody finale for everyone at the Genetic Opera’s final curtain call.

To answer the most burning question, yes it is an opera. There are perhaps five spoken lines and the rest of the movie is completely sung; you will get a solid 85 minutes of people singing while they engage in plenty of questionable acts. To say that Repo is unique is a disservice to the flick. I cannot imagine watching another movie that combines opera, vivisection, surgery addiction, Gothic costuming, and Paris Hilton actually doing a credible performance. Knowing that it is indeed a full-fledged opera, it mostly eliminates the snickers that arise from watching actors break into song at curious moments; when they’re singing all the time you’re more aware when they stop. It’s a futuristic rock opera that exists in the realm of a horror movie. There are several dispirited elements that can be occasionally awkward but that isn’t necessarily the flick’s fault. I just haven’t witnessed too many folks singing while arm-deep inside an exposed chest cavity. The movie isn’t as bloody or gory as repulsed film critics have lead you to believe. There are about four sequences of horror gore, though the film does resort to casual violence that can be off-putting, like stabbing extras. Repo possesses a wickedly entertaining and gleeful spirit.

But how is the music for such an avant guard enterprise? It’s pretty solid, actually. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, naturally with some vulgar lyrics, but the music is certainly well crafted, with strong melodies, catchy hooks, squealing guitars, and some rather impressive singing. The music is reminiscent of industrial rock acts but it also has some pretty flavorful pop styling (the pounding hard rock beats reminded me of the underrated band, kidneythieves). These are tunes that will stick in your grey matter. Some of the highlights include “Infected,” where Shilo laments her condition and says, “I’m infected/By your genetics!/Mother can you hear me?/Thanks for the disease!” The tune is likely the catchiest of them all and has a fun pop-punk melody that becomes a leitmotif. Vega also proves immediately that she can sing. “Zydrate Anatomy” is led by the charming vocals of the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich, who co-wrote the music and lyrics) as he exposits to the audience the ins and outs of the drug market. The guitars careen and the backup junkie chorus (“A little black vial? A little black vial!”) add some depth to the tune. But least you think it’s all Goth rock, Repo mixes in traditional arrangements as well, including plenty of harried violins, cellos, and some classical opera music. There are also subdued ballads like “I Didn’t Know I’d Love You So Much” and “Genetic Emancipation” that conclude the film on a high note. It all blends together into a unique soundscape that’s well worth singing along to.

Unlike the big screen version of Mamma Mia, the cast of Repo can actually sing, and they sing quite well. Vega (Spy Kids) sounds like a better Avril Lavigne than Avril Lavigne. She’s an ingĂ©nue that actually gets some good songs. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recall that Head gave a standout performance on the TV show’s musical episode, and here he shows his amazing lung capacity. Head has a rich tenor voice that is lovely to hear. He howls with soulful anguish and holds onto notes for long duration. It’s tricky to present a performance only through song and Head has the most complex role (in one song he laments that “I’m the monster!/I’m the villain!”). Head also switches over into a gravely demonic voice, like his maniacal “I’m on the job” voice to frighten his victims. The personality shift is a credit to Head’s vocal range. The rest of the cast includes singers with actual opera experience (Sorvino, Brightman) and musicians (Skinny Puppy’s Ogre), and then there’s Hilton. She’s already proven with one flop album that the hotel heiress is not the surest singer in the world. However, she works with the material as a spoiled rich kid consumed by her vanity (at one point her face literally falls off).

Repo! The Genetic Opera plays better as a soundtrack than as a movie. The story is mostly simple but still manages to be confusing at points because of unresolved subplots. The characters are given glimmers of outgrowing their stock roles, but most of them just accept their underwritten fates. Repo seems like it’s on the verge of making social commentary on vanity, man’s compulsion to destroy himself to live outside one’s means, the disposable nature of beauty, destiny versus free will, but it never really delves deeper. The surface is barely skimmed and then the movie kind of chugs along at a super brisk pace. The movie has a trashy, campy atmosphere that can wear thin at times, especially under director Darren Lynn Bousman’s lackluster lens. I know this is low budget but Bousman doesn’t conceal the budget limitations too well and his shot selections can seem rather redundant and mundane for a music video, let alone a feature length film. With that said, this is still worlds more ambitious than Bousman punishing audiences with another Saw sequel (he directed Saw 2-4 and took time off from 5 for this flick). Some of the songs, while fun, seem out of place given the narrative, like the punkish “Seventeen” where Vega declares her womanhood and pretends to be a rock star and pounces around her bedroom, complete with dancing stuffed animals. It’s almost like a Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana moment of strange daydreaming. The finale at the opera is a tad overwrought and yet it seems appropriate given the operatic backdrop.

I’m dumbfounded that some critics would cite Repo! The Genetic Opera as the worst film of 2008. How could something this ambitious, with such a killer soundtrack, be worse than 88 Minutes, The Hottie and the Nottie, and the atrociously harmful Meet the Spartans? The movie is far from perfect and is bizarre, messy, and somewhat shambling, but I have a healthy appreciation for a film that tries something different, whether or not it succeeds. A bloody rock opera seems like it’s begging to be considered midnight movie material, but it’s better than that. This curious experiment works better as a soundtrack than a movie, but it’s well worth seeing because, really, when are you going to catch another freaking movie like this? If you ever venture inside a Gothic-themed club, you can expect to see this movie playing on a TV somewhere until the end of time. My advice: buy the soundtrack and get ready to have the songs take root in your brain.

Nate’s Grade: B-

An American Carol (2008)

Being a conservative in Hollywood is like being a gay Republican – tough business. Director David Zucker has a notable history with comedy, having helmed Airplane!, the Naked Gun series, and the back half of the Scary Movies. He says that he converted to conservatism in the wake of 9/11, and Zucker actually wrote and directed a short for the 2004 Republican National Convention that was deemed too edgy for the Grand Old Party. Conservatives have also garnered the reputation for not having the best sense of humor, and Zucker’s An American Carol will do little to change this belief.

Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is an egotistical, fat, liberal documentary filmmaker whose latest work is titled, “Die You American Pigs.” Catchy, ain’t it? Malone wants to abolish the Fourth of July (would we just skip to July 5th?) and plans to protest a Trace Adkins concert for the troops. A batch of inept Islamic terrorists want to bomb the concert and decide into tricking Malone into assisting their goal. He will score them media passes to get onstage at the concert venue. Following the Charles Dickens’ playbook, Malone is first visited by the spirit of his idol, John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who horrifies Malone by saying war is sometimes necessary (really, conservatives are trying to reclaim Kennedy?). Three spirits will visit him although he spends almost all of his time with the ghost of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer). The ghostly general takes Malone on a trip to see what the alternative versions of U.S. history had the country avoided war at all costs. Malone stays defiant until he meets up with the Angel of Death (also Trace Adkins, because?) and sees the error of his “America-hating” ways. I don’t want to spoil things too much but the movie ends with an expanded Trace Adkins concert saluting the brave men and women in the armed forces.

Some from the opposing political viewpoints will find An American Carol to be infuriating. To those angry few I say get over it, because this movie is simply too lazy to get angry over. It barely reaches 77 minutes before the credits roll. Zucker and company tend to stretch their canvas too broadly, to the point that they aren’t exaggerating to lampoon but setting up cheap jokes. Michael Malone is fat. Michael Malone smells. Michael Malone falls down. Liberals hate America and want the terrorists to win. It’s so easy to write this material because there’s nothing topical or nuanced or even socially relevant. The movie beats reliable figures of conservative agita. When the movie tries to slam college professors as being dippy hippies brainwashing teens about the insurmountable ills of America, it just gets dumb (those people spend 10-15 years studying in a specialized academic field). There is no teeth to any of this satire because it’s all just recycled caricatures with the wit ground down. There isn’t anything of true satirical substance here. I don’t even get some of the satire, like the ACLU is depicted as a cluster of zombies with briefcases. What does that mean? Needless to say, the skewering of Arabs is mostly cartoonish and offensive. The flick constantly makes fun of the documentary art form, saying they are inferior to “real movies.” Because Michael Moore has an Oscar does that mean that the history of documentary film has to be slandered as being nothing more than transparent propaganda (at an awards ceremony, the top documentary is honored with the “Leni Riefenstahl Award”)? Marginalizing an entire art form seems rash, especially considering that Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed over $220 million worldwide. As of this writing, An American Carol, a “real movie,” has grossed seven million and counting.

The film deals in distasteful absolutes. Every idea is presented crudely in black and white. By the film’s standards, being anti-war and anti-troops are inseparably linked. In my mind, and this might be crazy, but it seems to me that the most pro-troops one could be would be hoping for them all to return home alive and healthy. An American Carol attempts to justify the ongoing War in Iraq, though it conveniently only ever flashes to combat in Afghanistan, the war that a majority of the public agrees with. It makes a case that war is sometimes necessary, though it has to flash back to Hitler and World War II to find a morally justified military engagement that everyone can feel god about. I agree that war is sometimes a reasonable option, but the movie paints all pacifists as wimpy appeasers. George Washington (Jon Voight) even steps in at one point to argue for the necessity of war in reference to the War on Terror. Did the filmmakers forget that Washington spent great expense to keep the nation out of foreign wars in his two terms? Isn’t it also condescending and objectionable to have Washington say freedom of speech is misused when it goes against the government? I think the Founding Fathers would realize the importance of freedom of speech, including offensive speech. Isn’t it also somewhat ironic to use slave-owners as mouthpieces for the merits of freedom? An American Carol says that disagreement is the same as dissent; so refusing to support one’s government blindly during a time of war is traitorous. Criticism is not anti-American. It’s insulting to all rationale human beings. Zucker and crew make their case look just as myopic and dismissive as those they choose to ridicule.

The acting neither hinders nor helps the material. Farley is a game comedian but he cannot do much with such lightweight material. There are several celebrity cameos including James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Bill O’Reilly, Mary Hart, David Alan Grier, Gary Coleman, Leslie Nielsen, Zachary Levi, Kevin Sorbo, and Paris Hilton. When Zucker is calling favors into the likes of Paris Hilton, you know things cannot be solid.

Here’s the problem. It’s harder to satirize from a conservative point of view. Conservatism believes that the status quo is best or that things were better back in the day. Liberalism believes that society can always improve, so a liberal point of view would tweak the present situation in order to call attention to remaining improvements. A conservative point of view would make fun of that possible change. This is the same reason why documentaries, like it or not, typically have a more progressive bent, and it’s because the filmmakers are presenting a case for change or outrage. Why would anyone devote himself or herself for years to create a film that says the world is peachy? Now I’m not saying that conservatism and humor are conflicting concepts, but it just makes it harder to be smarter. Making fun of Good Night, and Good Luck is not trying hard enough. How dare George Clooney make a film about the media cowering and failing to question our elected leaders and have it be applicable to today’s world.

The Zucker gag-a-minute spoof style doesn’t necessarily translate well to political satire. I wasn’t expecting much with An American Carol. When they exploit 9/11, taking Malone to the wreckage of the World Trade Center to make its case, well the movie stops being a satire and just implodes. It hits its tired targets with a sledgehammer. The satire is extremely lazy, the slapstick is dumb, and the movie specializes in being obnoxious, coloring the world in two extremes. This isn’t satire. This is just cheap and petty. Seriously, making fun of Michael Moore is like four years too late. Moore is a figure worthy of satire but the best that the movie can come up with is he’s fat and hates America? That he’s angry because he couldn’t get girls when he was younger and all those studly military recruits did? That’s not satire, that’s just excessive name-calling. An American Carol presents a new low for Zucker and I think even he knows it. On the DVD commentary track, Zucker, co-writer Lewis Friedman (BASEketball), and actor Kevin Farley basically lambaste the final product, often criticizing their own movie. The derisive commentary track is more enjoyable than the film itself.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Hottie and the Nottie (2008)

Paris Hilton is certainly a polarizing figure. The hotel heiress and tabloid star inspires so much hatred from the public and yet others still fawn over her. She simultaneously inspires ire and interest, and filmmakers have been trying to give their movies a publicity boost by adding Hilton into the cast. It didn’t work wonders for 2005’s House of Wax, though audiences got to witness Hilton get nailed (tee hee). Most of her starring ventures have been straight for DVD, except for this year’s beauty-and-the-beast crude comedy, The Hottie and the Nottie. It was released just in time for Valentine’s Day (hooray!). According to the numbers-crunching website Box Office Mojo, The Hottie and the Nottie played at 111 theaters for a mere three days before being yanked for DVD. It made a total of $27,696, averaging a pitiful $250 per screen. That averages out to 28 people seeing it per screen for its entire theatrical run.

Nate Cooper (Joel Moore, Dodgeball) is a 26-year-old dude who is just dumped by his latest near psychotic girlfriend (Kathryn Fiore). His latest dustup in love makes him reflect fondly to his first experience with the L-word. It was first grade and Christabelle moved into town. Nate moved to Maine after the first grade and never saw her again (seriously, does anyone ever remember the first grade with such clarity and deep feelings?). He decides to track down the adult Christabelle (Paris Hilton) who is working in Los Angeles. But before he can woo the “hottie” he has to get around the “nottie,” said nottie being the hideous likeness of June Phigg (Christine Lakin, Georgia Rule, TV’s Step by Step). Christabelle and June have been friends since the first grade and Christabelle has sworn a vow of abstinence until she can find a guy for her friend. Nate goes to great lengths to find a man willing to plumb the depths of “nottie-tude,” including hypnotizing a man (Adam Kulbersh, the only funny actor in this mess) into associating the image of June with a space babe. Then along comes Johann (Johann Urb). He’s a chiseled hunk who works as a dentist and insists on helping June’s unorthodox chompers for free. He seems too good to be true and Nate is convinced that Johann is buttering up the “nottie” because he really has his eyes set on scoring with the “hottie.”

This movie is a garish spectacle celebrating the vanity of Paris Hilton. The central premise is that Hilton is the pinnacle of beauty and that no man could resist her. The script is filled with all sorts of flattering compliments on how Hilton is the perfect specimen of desire. Early on she’s described as Nate’s “first real vision of beauty” and the one “all other girls will have to measure up to.” Men line up just to watch her pass by on her jogging route. She just doesn’t turn heads she makes men lose their minds, pour drinks in their laps, and force their wives to slap them in the face. She even has an albino stalker. Johann asks Christabelle, “Have you ever done any modeling? You have great bone structure.” The movie is a shallow 90-minute tribute to Hilton’s superficial genetics.

The film tries to champion a misguided message but fails miserably. There’s some lip service paid to inner beauty but Nate never sees the “nottie” as a “hottie” until she starts to physically transform and reconfigure her body. He remains shallow until the ugly girl meets the demands of others. No one seems to see her inner beauty until she focuses on the outer. Not only this, the film presents no rationale why Nate would start to fall for the “nottie.” There is no groundwork, they just all of a sudden talk more, make a few jokes, and then it’s straight to the longing looks and soft emo music. It makes no sense even for a cheap romantic comedy. Then there’s the whole concept of Hilton as a moral character who advises the less physically gifted of the species that the secret to love and happiness is to be yourself. Paris Hilton telling others to just be themselves? What kind of ridiculously hypocritical message is that? She pressures her ugly friend to lose her virginity as fast as possible. But remember to be your self, kids.

The dialogue is full of clunkers. Christabelle tells Nate, “I think a life without orgasms is like a world without flowers.” Um okay then. When she gets into the requisite third act fight with Nate, Christabelle says, “I am out of your league. You can’t sing, you can’t dance, you’re a terrible athlete and a really crappy liar.” Now what does that mean exactly? It’s meant to be dramatic but it ends up with a different meaning. Christabelle is inferring she can sing, dance, is an athlete, and… is a good liar? I would also like to know what the hell Nate does as far as a job, because it’s never mentioned and yet he has the time and money to buy lavish gifts like $2000 spa treatments.

The comedy is excruciating. The Hottie and the Nottie is physically nauseating to watch. I’ve written before that there’s a difference between gross-out and just gross, and this movie doesn’t seem to understand this. I nearly vomited after seeing an infected toenail land in some guy’s mouth. Snot bubbles, varicose veins, gnarly teeth, extreme acne, and overgrown hair are not comedy without context. Presented alone, they compose a vile health department slide show. There’s nothing funny in just being gross. Beyond that, the film is fairly lazy and obvious with its setups and punch lines. There may have been one moment that genuinely made me laugh and that was because it was unexpected. There aren’t any memorable or even remotely clever comic set pieces. The script by Heidi Ferrer (Princess, Dawson’s Creek) seems to completely misjudge the rules of comedy and romance and credibility.

It is difficult to describe Hilton as an “actress” because her whole public persona she’s built for herself something of an act. The film seems to cut around her limited acting skills because there’s never a shot that lasts longer than two or three sentences. If director Tom Putnam is honest with himself he will some day release a fascinating commentary about the pains of directing this movie.

But special mention must be made to a man that feels so audacious he must put the term “the” in front of his name. (The) Greg Wilson plays Nate’s only friend in this reality and oh God is he terrible. He does the word “terrible” an injustice. He seems to be shouting every line completely overboard as if he were on some glib VH1 pop culture show where every line feels like it should be followed by a rim shot. His jokes are groan worthy and his spastic line delivery is all over the place. The man comes across as the most obnoxious actor in a film that stars Paris Hilton. I wanted to punch him in the face every second I saw his smirking expression.

The child actor that plays young Nate, well, this freaking kid looks like a an adult pretending to be a six-year-old kid. He reminds me of the child in 1979’s The Tin Drum who wished her would remain a child forever and never physically changes, even after the hormones set in.

This is a vapid excuse for a movie and a waste of time. And yet, for my vast knowledge on the world of bad cinema, The Hottie and the Nottie is awful, unfunny, stomach-churning, and morally repulsive but it is still a better movie than Meet the Spartans. Hell, at least this flick even attempts a three-act story structure with something close to characters. I’ve heard complaints that The Hottie and the Nottie would be viewed more fairly if Hilton was not the lead but I argue that Hilton and the film are inescapable. She served as an executive producer on the film and approved the material, so of course it’s going to be flatter her and present numerous situations where Hilton can strut and pose in revealing outfits. She’s less of a character than a loop of masturbatory fodder. This is just a sad, icky film that serves one purpose: to stroke Hilton’s vanity. But remember kids, just be your self.

Nate’s Grade: D-

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