The first, or maybe second, third or even fourth Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday of every month Nathan Rabin writes about three DVD premieres for Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory. In this month's super-sized round-up of DTV joints Michael Jackson gets spoofy, Rob Schneider gets handcuffed to a chick with a dick and director Damon Dash offers a not-at-all ironic feature-length testament to the unbreakable bond he shares with fellow Roc-A-Fella founder Jay-Z.
Miss Cast Away: It's never an encouraging sign when the primary question about a film is "How bad can it possibly be?" That's certainly the dominant query regarding 2004's Miss Cast Away, a bizarre, amateurish spoof currently holding down the number 28 slot on the Internet Movie Database's list of the hundred worst films of all time. Incidentally, some clever soul on the Internet is currently in the process of seeing and writing about all hundred films in the IMDB's hall of shame. My hat goes off to you, good Sir or Ma'am. That is a good-ass idea. I wish I'd thought of it myself.
The film's big selling point is an extended cameo from Michael Jackson as "Agent MJ". It's a measure of how far Jackson's star has fallen that actually getting Jackson to appear as himself represents only a quick step up from hiring a cheap impersonator to do the honors. Actually, an impersonator might even be preferable, since the real Jackson is so creepy, plastic and inhuman that he's hard to look at.
An omnibus spoof in the blundering, half-assed tradition of Date Movie, the film casts Charlie Schlatter and Eric Roberts as pilots who crash-land on an island with a plane full of beauty pageant contestants. From there, the film's plot begins to feel like it was dictated by a hyperactive ten-year-old in the grip of an epic sugar rush. You see, Noah from Noah's Ark is on the island and the apes from Planet of the Apes want to use his Ark to take over the world and the pope sends his secret agent Michael Jackson to help Schlatter and also Austin Powers is working with the pope and together they try and save the world get off the Island. Oh, and the guy from Joe Millionaire is on hand as a reporter or something, for some reason. Got it? Doesn't make much sense, does it? Neither does the film.
Miss Cast Away isn't any funnier than the Friedberg/Seltzer abominations. A typical gag involves the Austin Powers doppelganger (identified in the credits only as "Groovy Guy") pointing to a big-haired lovely and shouting "Oh, Bee-Hive!" but the spirit behind the whole enterprise is a lot more likable. Where Friedberg and Seltzer's films are informed only by a mercenary, misanthropic crudeness, Miss Cast Away is sweet in a dumb kind of way. Writer-director Bryan Michael Stoller's heart is in the right place, he just doesn't seem to have any, you know, talent.
Just How Bad Is It? Plenty bad, but definitely not the twenty-eighth worst film ever made.
American Crude: In the aftermath of Pulp Fiction video store shelves were flooded with bloody, profane, gratingly self-conscious direct-to-video pulp pretenders that aspired en masse to be the next Reservoir Dogs but were rightly received by as low-budget video schlock, no better or worse than the latest Mark Dacascos vehicle. Of course, these days not even Quentin Tarantino is having much luck at the box-office with Tarantino-style fare so it's not surprising that his imitators and acolytes have moved on to ripping off other filmmakers.
So the arrival of an old-school Tarantino knockoff like American Crude is like being visited by an old acquaintance from college you always thought was an asshole. Watching American Crude instilled me with a strange, vaguely melancholy nostalgia for something I hated at the time and hasn't gotten any better with age. The feature-length directorial debut of Craig Sheffer, B-list actor and Keith Phipps lookalike, American Crude hews closely to the Tarantino knockoff template of horrible people doing terrible things to each other in the most in-your-face, pseudo-shocking manner imaginable.
The usually reliable Ron Livingston takes his likable everyman persona to dark, unlikable places as a sleazy lawyer and part-time hustler who gets a prostitute for best friend Rob Schneider as a Bachelor Party gift. The only problem is that the she-whore in question (Missi Pyle) is a chick with a dick who gets arrested alongside her trick before any magic can happen sexually. Even more unfortunately, a hooker (Jennifer Esposito) bucking for revenge alongside her dim-witted pimp (Michael Clarke Duncan) ends up killing the arresting officer, leaving Deuce Bigalow handcuffed to a tranny hooker with a mean left hook. Meanwhile Livingston and Schneider's best gals explore the love that speaks its name in pretty much every issue of Penthouse and Livingston's pervy dad tries to make a porno with an underage runaway.
If that lurid plot description makes the film sound fun or exciting, I can assure you it is not. You know you're in trouble when the presence of Rob Schneider handcuffed to a transsexual hooker represents a film's classiest element. To call American Crude adolescent would be to give it entirely too much credit: in its unshakable belief that drugs, swearing, guns, boobies and chicks making out with each other represents the height of awesomeness it's defiantly pre-adolescent and the film's mindlessly profane, painfully over-written dialogue invariably lands with a thud. Sheffer should realize that when a film aspires to hit a home run with every swing it ends up striking out most of the time. Honestly, even Rob Schneider is too good for this shit.
Just How Bad Is It?Really motherfucking, cocksucking awful
Death Of A Dynasty: In the long, undistinguished history of self-indulgent cinematic hip hop vanity projects there has never been a project quite as hilariously, deliciously, bitterly ironic than Death Of A Dynasty. It's a feature-length tribute to the lasting, impregnable bond between Jay-Z and former Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash, two men who have remained BFFs (Best Friends Forever) in the years since Death of A Dynasty was released. By "friends" I of course mean "bitter enemies". The film goes out of its way to depict Jay-Z and Dame Dash's Roc-A-Fella as a close-knit family. The ensuing years have illustrated that if Roc-A-Fella is a family at all it's the kind of tension-filled unit where mom and dad communicate exclusively through restraining orders and lawsuits, the kids are all in therapy and even the family dog is on anti-depressants.
Oh, but the irony hangs thick over Death Of A Dynasty! The first time I saw it I was thoroughly unimpressed but upon a second viewing I found it has aged in fascinating ways. It ends up saying a lot about hip hop, but not in the way its makers intended. Dash's second directorial effort is a broad, cartoonish sledgehammer hip hop satire about a clueless white writer (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who is given the plum assignment of investigating a rift between Roc-A-Fella bigwigs Dame Dash (played by rapper Capone) and Jay-Z (played by comedian Robert Stapleton). Moss-Bachrach begins the film a complete neophyte but he soon becomes intoxicated with the hip hop high life. It isn't long until he's dressing like R. Kelly and peppering his patois with hip hop slang.
Moss-Bachrach's ego and attitude skyrocket as quickly becomes a major player in the high-stakes world of hip hop gossip and immerses himself in a simmering feud between Dash and Jay-Z over the affections of model Devon Aoki, who, it must be said, is very sexy for a woman with the body of a ten-year-old boy. Jay-Z and Dash's feud veers into dark and tragic territory until, in a closing twist, (UNDOUBTEDLY UNNECESSARY SPOILER ALERT) it turns out that the whole "feud" was an elaborate prank designed to punish an invasive and beef-obsessed press for daring to suggest that Jay-Z and Dash's partnership was wracked with internal tension and on the verge of falling apart just because, um, their partnership really was wracked with internal tension and on the verge of falling apart.
The film ends with the real Jay-Z and Dash (who, confusingly enough, also plays a major supporting character named Young Fresh-2-Def) peeling back the fourth wall and assuring the audience that their partnership can never be undone by something as silly as squabbling over a woman. Furthermore, Dash assures us that their bond is secure because they've got an angel watching over them in the form of Aaliyah, to whom the film is dedicated. Well, Aaliyah's ghost must be doing a really shitty job of keeping Roc-A-Fella together, because now Dash and Jay-Z hate each other. I haven't been so disappointed by a dead person since I found out John Belushi's ghost was racist. Shame on you, Aaliyah! Shame on you!
Is it arrogant and self-aggrandizing of Dash to make a comedy about Dame Dash? Of course it is. Then again, when has Dash ever done anything that wasn't arrogant or self-aggrandizing? I've always found Dash to be one of rap's most colorful and intriguing characters. Like so many in hip hop, he does a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. He's a quintessential hip hop hustler with one foot in the art film world; he produced The Woodsmen and popped up in such James Toback joints as When Will I Be Loved and The Outsider. Gosh, what could Toback possibly see in a camera-hungry, loud, obnoxious self-promoter like Dash? Dash's fetish for indie film permeates the film. It boasts cameos from usual suspects like Beanie Sigel and M.O.P but also from Chloe Sevigny, James Toback and half of the Upright Citizens Brigade.
As a spoof of the hip hop high life Dynasty is cartoonish and obvious but also reasonably clever and mildly amusing. The more you know about hip hop and the Roc in particular, the more you'll get out of it. I enjoyed Capone's parody of Dash as a manic, perpetually agitated egomaniac prone to fits of seizure-like convulsions he tries to pass off as dancing and Kevin Hart's equally frenetic take on P-Diddy as a crazy midget. But Stapleton's colorless, overly reverent take on Jay-Z is achingly dull and the stiff-white-boy-gone-hip hop shtick is strictly by the numbers.
In the film, Dash and Jay-Z's break-up has hip hop riveted. In real life, the duo's high-profile spat generated largely indifferent shrugs and murmurs of "who cares"? For all his personality, celebrity and swagger to most people Dash was never anything more than that guy dancing around in Jay-Z's videos.
In keeping with the film's star-studded, wide-ranging parody of hip hop high rollers, DMC and Jam Master Jay play themselves as crotchety old men grousing about all the whippersnappers of today. They're clearly enjoying themselves, and their enthusiasm is infectious but their scenes are filled with melancholy and tragic irony. If nothing else, Dash's lively, ridiculous, self-indulgent and ultimately sorta sad hip hop spoof gives Jam Master Jay the happy ending and blissful old age he was tragically denied in real life.
Just How Bad Is It? It's kind of fascinating, but only for hardcore hip hop heads
A final note on The Onion Movie. I know some of you have been waiting for the A.V Club to review The Onion Movie in one form or another. I hate to disappoint you, but that's just not going to happen. For me to write about it would be a flagrant conflict of interest. Two of my friends wrote it. The Onion has been my employer for eleven years. So the best tack is to just not write about it. In my experience it's always best to avoid not only conflicts of interest but also the appearance of conflicts of interest.
Commenters have complained in the past that I reviewed "The Aristocrats" without acknowledging that Onion comedy writers are in the film. I think that's an entirely different story. First off, I did not know that they'd be in the film. Furthermore, they were one of a hundred or so funny people featured, so it's not like The Aristocrats was, to borrow a phrase, an Onion Movie or anything. I honestly don't think their presence affected my appraisal of the film one way or another and I think it would have been self-indulgent to point out the Onion's very minor role in that film. Incidentally, I have not seen The Onion Movie yet but intend to.