Bar Rescue (Seasons 1-8) (2011-2021)

I’m not generally a fan of reality TV, but every now and then, something like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Survivor” will grab my attention. Even though I know the whole thing is contrived, forced and manipulative, I let myself get into it, albeit in a shut-my-brain-off way… and that’s exactly how to enjoy “Bar Rescue.” Host Jon Taffer is a cross between a mob boss and a colorful mentor-type, which makes him an interesting onscreen presence, even as his act starts to get a bit tired after a while. The arc that Taffer goes through as host in most episodes is predictable and cyclical, which starts to take away from the excitement of watching a new episode because you’re pretty sure where it’s going to go (almost as if… it’s following a script??). That’s when you start putting things together in your head, like how Taffer’s onscreen tantrums at the expense of the economically desperate bar owners, which reveals the underlying current of humiliation that carries through most reality TV shows, and once you see it you can’t unsee it. As the show goes on, some episodes here and there focus on inspiring stories of everyday folks overcoming odds with a helping hand, but Taffer’s disinterest in those narratives is fairly obvious, and his subdued performance in those moments is positively somnambulant and reeking of disingenuousness. But then again, all that being said, the things I complain about in this write-up are true of the majority of reality TV shows, so I suppose my objections with the show are more about the overall genre; but I won’t lie, I enjoyed passively watching “Bar Rescue,” and I will likely continue to watch as long as it’s on, so I guess I’m part of the problem.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby (1999)

Like an even lower-budgeted version of its own predecessor, “Freeway II” is an acidic, gritty and undeniably funny (not in a haha way, in a ‘oh goodness that’s dark’ way) comedy/thriller about the social consequences of rampant child abuse. Natasha Lyonne is absolutely perfect as White Girl, a troubled teenager with an acerbic sense of humor who, while facing a lifetime prison sentence, escapes from a juvenile center with Cyclona (Maria Celedonio), a schizophrenic underage serial killer bent on reaching Mexico for the comfort of childhood protector Sister Gomez (Vincent Gallo). As the first one was a demented retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” this one is “Hansel and Gretel,” which should at least give you a blueprint for where this movie is headed as it nears its climax. It’s an upsetting, humorous and often-uncomfortable drama about the lifelong impacts of abuse that’s presented as a dark comedy because it’s how White Girl chooses to look at her life, and that’s how Lyonne plays her: She’s resigned to her circumstances with a wry scoff but also striving for a spark, and when she finds it with Cyclona, all bets are off. This time around, the humor is even less “humorous” than the first movie, in that it’s used to underscore the horrors of an indifferent government that actively preys on the unfortunate (especially children) and then refuses to help put the pieces back together. By the end it’s become a full-on horror movie in a way that feels organic, like it’s simply the natural conclusion of the story because writer-director Matthew Bright’s narrative thesis has been so successful at making its case that you accept the movie on its own terms. It’s a shame that Celedonio is rather distractingly poor in the role of Cyclona, but her chemistry with Lyonne goes a long way towards selling the shared bond between the characters, so in the end, it mostly evens out. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you can stomach the idea of a deliberately ugly comedy about child abuse, then this one may be worth the trek.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

Freeway (1996)

When I first saw “Freeway” in high school, I didn’t quite know what I had just watched but I knew it was weirdly compelling, and it led me to the works of cult director Gregg Araki. So, if you’re into movies like “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere,” you shouldn’t let this movie’s A-list cast discourage you from expecting an absolutely demented, screamingly politically incorrect dark comedy that practically dares you to shut it off. I mean, not a lot of movies extract deliberately juvenile humor from shocking child abuse, but “Freeway” does: It’s not so much that it reduces the subject to a few cheap lines, but that it uses offensively glib humor about such a serious topic in order to confront its own audience with their complacency with actual, IRL child abuse. After all, how can you claim to be offended by child abuse being used for humor when you’re also unwilling to discuss the topic candidly with others and work on solutions for the betterment of society, the movie asks you repeatedly. It’s that kind of in-your-face, you’re-a-fucking-hypocrite attitude that makes the movie so electrifying; director-screenwriter Matthew Bright is so down with dragging you out of your comfort zone kicking and screaming to shake you up about real-life epidemics across America that result from a predatory free enterprise system combined with flagrantly indifferent and corrupt branches of government, that he leaves you blushing in the end. Oh, and did I mention it’s also a demented retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”? Because it’s also a demented retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Admittedly the movie’s pretty sloppy from a filmmaking perspective in that low-budget, mid-’90s indie-cheapie kind of way (not unlike the aforementioned Araki), but there’s just so many hot-button issues being impaled on a variety of spikes throughout the movie that it’s impossible not to respect the hell out of it.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (2019)

This documentary about Z-grade horror director Al Adamson is equal parts a loving tribute to a well-liked man and prolific horror director, as well as a true crime drama that unfolds almost in reel time, thanks to director David Gregory’s knack with tone. In archival footage, Adamson comes off as a likable guy, but it’s really the testaments from his loved ones and former contributors that paint such an endearing, flattering picture of him, which makes the movie’s inevitable conclusion all the sadder and, frankly, perplexing: By the time we arrive to the resolution of the title’s mystery, we’ve covered everything from shady characters to UFO conspiracy theories, so it quietly becomes one of those ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ narratives that would make a terrific scripted miniseries on its own, because it really is just so fascinating and packed with wild developments that you can’t help but want to know more about the context around each turn. So, if you’re a fan of movies about indie moviemaking in the 1960s and 1970s, or if you’re a true-crime buff looking for something a little different that’s also wildly entertaining, you should probably give this one a shot; you won’t be sorry.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Mylène Farmer 2019: Le Film (2019)

Due to downright Draconian anti-piracy methods, it’s hard to get your hands on this live performance, but if you can, do so now. Over the years, the French superstar has had some of the most impressive live shows I’ve ever seen, and here she still manages to outdo herself: The stage itseslf is a mammoth beast of a platform worthy of latter-day Madonna concerts, with moving pieces that recall the Queen of Pop’s innovative “MDNA World Tour” in 2012 and video inserts that call to mind her 2015 “Rebel Heart Tour,” yet Farmer delivers a show that couldn’t be more distinct than Madonna’s if it tried. Where Madonna delights in deliriously entertaining, over-the-top spectacles, Farmer instead has a relaxed energy throughout her show that has a transfixing effect on the viewer (and her live audience, who are clearly enthralled with her). Every little movement of her’s is maximized by her deliberate, economical dancing style, while her live singing is consistent and powerful despite her admittedly limited range. The costumes (by Jean-Paul Gaultier, natch) are stunning and inventive, and while the concert is filled with songs from Farmer’s latest albums, it’s also packed to the gills with some of her signature hits from her four-decade-long career. It’s hard to recommend the show as forcefully as I would like because I don’t want to risk spoiling its surprises and outstanding moments for any of my readers who may end up watching this, but trust me: It’s totally worth it, and you don’t need to speak or understand French to appreciate it.

Note: After searching for a physical copy and a digital download for over a year, I ended up having to buy the DVD from France… as well as a region-free DVD player to watch it. So, it’s a bit of a pricey excursion, but super worth it. Happy hunting!

Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

You Don’t Nomi (2019)

I’m a huge, huge “Showgirls” fan. Among all the “so bad it’s good” camp classics I’ve come across over the years (from “Glitter” to “Can’t Stop the Music” to “Xanadu”), I don’t think any of them are quite as notable as “Showgirls,” which is firmly planted somewhere between brilliant and ridiculous. Honestly, I’m such a fan that my husband and I got married at an art house theater and had a showing of “Showgirls” in lieu of dancing, so that should give you an idea of my level of appreciation for this one. But this documentary is… fine, I guess? It should be a lot better, and even though it does a serviceable job of situating the movie’s appeal, its backstory and its reception, it seems to only skim the surface. It goes from one point to another with little connection or flow, so it’s almost like watching a feature-length version of MTV’s “Pop Up Video,” just lots of unrelated trivia with out-of-context audio narration from pre-existing sources (like published audiobooks and commentary by David Schmader) cobbled together. Given the subject matter it at least manages to maintain your interest from beginning to end, but it just never really comes alive; a few late scenes addressing “Showgirls” star Elizabeth Berkley’s public evisceration following the movie’s release in 1995 comes close to an emotional catharsis and suggests a meatier version of the subject and a wider discussion about the treatment of women in Hollywood, but as it is, it’s fine as a stopgap until we get a denser version.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

Xanadu (1980)

Despite being known as one of its decade’s cheesier camp classics, “Xanadu” isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. Instead of being a lame, so-bad-it’s-good anti-masterpiece like “The Apple” or “Can’t Stop the Music,” it’s mostly just a tame, kind-hearted and often-dorky musical fantasy that serves as a porte-manteau for its top-tier disco soundtrack featuring leading lady Olivia Newton-John in her prime, coming off of “Grease.” There’s almost zero character development for protagonist Michael Beck other than his refusal to be managed by his employer, and Newton-John is just there to smile and sing… and while those are two things she’s great at, she wanders in and out of the narrative aimlessly, popping up once in a while to prop up our leading man’s self-esteem… which is extremely tiresome, because ugh, who wants to watch a movie about a mediocre white guy who needs a mommy to wipe his tushy for him, you know? There’s also the strange case of Gene Kelly, who plays a lonely rich man who attaches himself to Beck instantly like a middle-aged creeper selling access to riches in exchange for companionship, and it’s icky as hell. The legendary performer is invested and deploys his mega-watt charisma a number of times, but given the context, it’s all very off-putting and distracting instead of charming. But in the end, it all comes down to the music, which is a nice mix of lo-tempo disco and up-tempo adult contemporary, like the famous “Magic” and the opener “I’m Alive,” which are both sure to bring a smile to anyone with an interest in easy-listening classic radio hits; and while the movie isn’t great, it’s not bad either, it’s just kind of underwhelming as a feature but it’s at least pleasant and enjoyable.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

Clash of the Titans (1981)

For a movie with so much money behind it, so much potential, and so much onscreen class, you’d think it’d be a lot more fun than this. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t exactly a cure for insomnia or anything: The special effects are charming as all hell, the sets are terrifically ornate and deliriously over-the-top, and there are the likes of *the* Maggie Smith as Thesis, walking around being a big bitch to everyone like nothing could be more artistically satisfying. But after a strong start that includes the kind of cheesy special effects, fantastical action and a distinct, striking original score that suggest a rollicking fantasy fare like a live action “The Last Unicorn” or “The Black Cauldron,” things seem to pipe down for a while. The next hour that follows is ok, with some adventures here and there that are fine but overall it’s a bit boring, until we reach the final stretch, where the movie finally comes alive again. The climactic fight against the Kraken is pretty cool, but it’s got nothing on the battle against Medusa, which is the stuff of nightmares: A stop-motion, snake-like Medusa stalks our heroes inside her darky lit lair with the vociferousness of a wounded animal, and it’s impressively (and legitimately) scary. So overall, the movie is just fine and it has its moments for sure, I just wish it was as entertaining as it could have been.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

God Told Me To (1976)

There’s nothing quite like a Larry Cohen horror movie, in particular his ’70s and ’80s output, and you can see his touch all over everything here. There’s the gritty streets of New York City that often populate his movies, the out-there plotline that unapologetically digs down on its B-movie roots, the continued presence of police officers, and an almost apocalyptic vibe that permeates the proceedings. Here, we follow Tony Lo Bianco as a detective investigating a series of strange murders where the killers all repeat that God told them to do what they’ve done, even those with no prior religious convictions. What follows transpiring is a truly bonkers narrative that includes everything from grisly mass murders to alien visitors to divine malevolence, with a sprinkle of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” running through its veins. By the time you get to the climax the whole thing has become absolutely loony and demented in a deliriously entertaining way, and there are plenty of ‘WTF’ moments that propel the narrative forward and make watching the movie with like-minded friends even more fun. A bit of group participation always makes this type of midnight-movie grindhouse classic all the more charming and entertaining, albeit in a casually violent and grisly way, so if you’re into the likes of “Basket Case” and “Maniac Cop” you’ll love this one.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

Marjoe (1972)

When I sat down to watch this documentary about former child preacher Marjoe Gortner, what I didn’t expect was a blazing exposé of the evangelical circuit’s flagrant avarice and exploitation of Pentecostals’ deeply held convictions. It’s truly jaw dropping to watch as we follow a now-grown Gortner returning to the preaching circuit to raise money for his personal life with his new partner, and casually lifting the veil over the deliberate manipulation of Pentecostal congregations for every dollar they have. One of the movie’s most striking scenes is the juxtaposition between the psychological impact of frenzied preaching in intentionally poorly ventilated venues, with many attendees writhing in religious ecstasy (or, mania, depending on your perspective), contrasted with Gortner and an associate literally cackling in the back office as they count their pirated booty. What you make of Gortner himself also depends on your perspective; maybe he’s a charlatan, maybe he’s a victim of child abuse, maybe he’s a survivor doing the only thing he knows how to do, or maybe he’s all of those things? Whatever he is, one thing that’s certain is that he’s charismatic and it’s easy to see why so many people are enraptured with him, which adds an entirely different level of subtext to the documentary, because you can completely see how this would happen and you find yourself rooting for him in the end. At a brisk 88 minutes, “Marjoe” doesn’t overstay its welcome, and provides plenty of food for thought about the psychological evils of commodifying religious faith.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Out of all the grindhouse horror classics made by the likes of Larry Cohen, William Lustig and Frank Henenlotter in the ’70s and ’80s, Cohen’s “Q: The Winged Serpent” is by far my favorite. There’s nothing else quite like this out there, and I’m not sure there ever will be again because it’s so distinctly a product of its time. Cohen’s camera captures New York City of the early ’80s, before its renaissance as a chic destination in the early aughts, when it was dirty, dangerous and grimily charming as all hell (like in “Fame” and “Midnight Cowboy”), and it’s impossible to picture this movie happening anywhere else. Then there’s the monster itself, which is rendered via stop-motion animation, both so dorky and so charming at the same time, and while it robs the movie of any real menace it makes the whole thing so pleasantly campy and compelling. In the midst of all these elements is a series of impressively committed performances by B-movie gods like David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, but none compare to Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn: The striking performer strolls confidently through the movie, delivering a method performance like nothing could be more fun or more satisfying, and he’s a joy to watch the whole way through. All these disparate pieces come together extraordinarily well in the end thanks to Cohen’s inimitable, ebullient directorial style, which guides the movie forward and makes it as cohesive and entertaining as it is gonzo.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Fantasy Island (2020)

Can you imagine taking a concept as rife with genre potential as the titular ’70s show, giving it a decent-sized budget as well as an absolutely stunning shooting locale, and ending up with something as toothless and neutered as this?? It’s like the movie has no clue what it wants to be when it grows up: It’s a lighthearted horror yarn but it’s also a hardcore one, it’s an adventure movie but also a war drama, a revenge tale mixed with an unearned redemption one, not to mention a bunch of unreliable narrators and absolutely zero likable characters. Additionally, there’s the PG-13 rating: A number of times the movie comes close to growing balls (in particular during an early scene that calls to mind the gruesomeness and intensity of the “Saw” movies but chickens out like it’s a “Scooby-Doo” episode instead of a studio horror movie), but always figures out a way to fumble its way to the finish line. By the time the first hour is over you’re completely done with this, and there’s still an interminable 40ish minutes left. If a movie can make the usually-electric Michael Peña into a somnambulant, anonymous baddie who registers no menace, aggression or power, then it’s just not worth your time, you know?

Rating: ★★ (out of 5)