Friday, January 24, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Cockroaches!

If we’re going to discuss the modern cinema with any degree of intelligence we need to distinguish between stoner movies and stoned movies.
Stoner movies are movies made by people who aren’t on drugs for people who are. You can trace them from the Salvador Dali sequence in Spellbound through Lost Weekend and The Fly to The Trip to Up In Smoke and (N)Ice Dreams to the various Harold and Kumar flicks to Jack-in-the-Box ads.
Stoned movies are made by people who are on drugs for who the hell knows, because they’re made by people who are on drugs. Flying-day-glo-unicorn drugs.
It’s hard to tell the difference between a stoned movie and a really bad one, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Joe’s Apartment is the No. 1 stoned movie of the ‘90s.
I don’t know what was being ingested by the creative-so-to-speak forces behind Joe’s Apartment, but Jay-Z has to take out a title loan to afford an ounce of it.
Right now I’m sure of two things: you’ve never seen Joe’s Apartment because you’re a person of taste and refinement, and you’re dying to know the plot. I use hand sanitizer every time I call this burrito filled with random events a plot, but here goes: A country boy named Joe moves into a big-city apartment and finds it inhabited with cockroaches.
So far so good. It’s not really a plot, but it’s plot-like. It has some plotness and a little bit of plotitude, and its plotivity displays a tenuous connection to reality.
Let’s not get carried away, though, because shortly after Joe rents the apartment and finds it infested with cockroaches he discovers that A) he hates cockroaches and B) the cockroaches can talk. ( I realize it would make more sense if B) came before A), but not in this movie. Never in this movie.) And not only can they talk, they sing and dance and display the highest level of human intelligence: They do standup comedy. With matches for microphones. Because they can’t do Kafka.
You can pretty much guess where the movie goes from here. Joe starts a comedy club under his sink for other insects and becomes filthy rich, only he can’t spend any of it because insects pay for tickets using small bits of rotted flesh, dandelion pollen, and the carcasses of other insects, even when they use PayPal.
Actually, that would be a better plot than the plot-burrito that is plopped on this movie’s dirty plate. You can figure it out, if you promise to use no imagination whatsoever: Joe meets prospective girlfriend. Prospective girlfriend is grossed out at first but then comes to respect  the talking cockroaches.
(Because the way for people to respect gross, disgusting insects is to give the insects the power of speech. I suppose. It worked for Chris Christie.)
Throw in a couple of bumbling crooks that are conquered by Roach Power and everybody lives happily ever after, including the bugs, because you, like, can’t kill cockroaches.
Like it? If you don’t you need to cozy up to your friendly neighborhood pharmaceutical representative right this minute, because that’s all the ploticity this puppy can deliver.
It also doesn’t star anyone, with a Subway-style capital “ANY.” The lead is Jerry O’Connell, the love interest is Megan Ward, and the crooks are led by Robert Vaughn (long way from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Bobby). This cinematic turd-de-force is on its knees begging for Daniel Stern, George Wendt, Abe Vigoda, Al Lewis, Harvey Fierstein, Classy Freddie Blassie or anyone with a dram of charisma to camp it up, but no one shows. They were all at a David Hasselhoff celebrity roast.
Even with all its negative castification Joe’s Apartment might have been able to pull itself out of the sump by its bootstraps, but then you listen to the lyrics the cockroaches sing and you’re right back in the septic soup again.
Here’s a sample: “Garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage/Garbage in the moonlight gives off a lovely smell (lovely smell)/Sipping sewage with my baby in our little roach motel (please don't tell)/zum zum zuma zum zum zum/doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doot de doo doot de doot doot doodly doo/Take an ocean trip on our garbage ship with the cockroach I adore/We'll take a taste of the medical waste that washes up on shore.”
“Positively 4th Street” it ain’t. Or “Mairzy Doats and Doazy Doats,” either.
There’s only one more thing to be said about this celluloid angel-dust aftereffect: Donruss had the trading-card license.
Of course Donruss had the trading-card license. How the heck else could it follow up Kazaam?
You ought to be getting the message that Donruss’ ear for trading-card licenses was crafted of the finest tin, but it’s not all Donruss’ fault. In the pop-culture licensed-product market at that particular time Joe’s Apartment  had multiple positive attributes: It had a soundtrack, the card license was available, and it was made by MTV.
The history of MTV and trading cards as I remember it goes something like this: First the Yo! MTV Raps! Cards from Pro Set (memorably profiled here), then Beavis and Butt-Head sets from Fleer (including – unless I’m hallucinating again – a Flair/Ultra-ish version, since the one thing B&B-H fans want to do is pay more for trading cards), an MTV Toons set that showed all the shows that weren't music videos and weren't as good as Beavis and Butt-Head, and the MTV Films/Joe's Apartment set, and then everyone said, "Uh, I think we’re good."
So the big problem for Donruss wasn’t that it had a bad eye for licenses; it picked a good(ish) license, only at a really bad time.
(Okay, so it picked a really bad license. As former Cards Illustrated editor Don Butler remarked when he heard I was writing about this set, “Yeah, unbelievably a card set about an agoraphobe and talking cockroaches did not become the next Mars Attacks.” He also dismissed its wretched sales by saying, “It came out about the same time as the Flipper set.” Because a card set for a dog movie featuring a semi-talking dolphin takes down a card set for a dog movie featuring talking cockroaches any day.)
The set didn’t do buyers or collectors any favors, though it has about as much fun with the material as your average Project Runway All-Star, with nary a Heidi Klum or Alyssa Milano in sight, sorry to say. The set is pitched in terms of “Etymological Order & Phyla,” making it the only trading-card set ever to be categorized the same way as dung beetles or, yes, cockroaches. (Can’t say these guys didn’t know their subject matter.) Chases include seven Roach cards, because 10 would be too many, and every pack has a free tattoo – yet another reason why tattoo removal is the growth industry of the twenty-teens.
In case you’re curious, the cards were advertised with the line, “The TRADING CARDS crawl from behind the fridge into stores everywhere.” It’s no “He's A Rappin' Genie With An Attitude ... And He's Ready For Slam-Dunk Fun!”, but it’ll suffice. At least it didn’t kill any sales that weren’t dead already.
At one point in the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby Katharine Hepburn is trying to explain to her aunt why Cary Grant is standing in front of them in a peignoir. Her aunt says, quite sensibly, “Why, that doesn’t make any sense,” to which Cary Grant replies, “And take my word for it, madam: It never will.”

The Joe’s Apartment set is like that. The difference is that in Bringing Up Baby you get Cary Grant in a peignoir, and in the Joe’s Apartment set you get talking cockroaches. It doesn’t make any sense, and it never will.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wham! Bam! Damn, Kazaam!

George Santayana never worked in the movie business, and that’s a good thing for all concerned. Instead of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we would have had, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to remake it.”
We’re plagued with remakes as it is. New movie versions of Annie, Robocop, Godzilla, and Gilligan's Island are coming in 2014, along with TV-series versions of everything from Fargo to The Road To Bountiful.
Fortunately, the search for new stars for these new/old shows has shifted from athletes to rap artists to internet sensations and reality-TV stars. While this hasn’t brought us to the point where Phil Robertson stars as Miss Hannigan (“Scrub them floors, girls; you’re a-gonna be married in a couple months!”), it has upped the thespian quotient somewhat. I don’t know what kind of acting chops you need to star in Something Borrowed, Something New or get thrown by a Sit ‘n’ Spin through a plate-glass window, but it has to be more than what it takes to drain stepback three-pointers. And more importantly, it’s quelled the clamor to remake Kazaam.
You’ve probably forgotten Kazaam; I had until I stumbled upon this promo card this morning, and I’d really liked my life up to that point. But Kazaam brings back memories I’m not sure I want to remember.
For those of you who are not completely up to speed on pooch-screwing, shark-jumping, egg-sucking movies of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Kazaam was a thinly veiled (no pun intended) remake of Aladdin, with Shaquille O’Neal in the Robin Williams role.
Shaquille O’Neal as a seven-foot-one, three-hundred pound genii that grins a lot, wears size-18 curly-toed velvet slippers, sports a Superman tattoo, talks like a cement mixer full of stove bolts, raps with the rhythmic sensibilities of Flo, and can’t shoot free throws: Why didn’t I think of that? And better yet, why didn’t I think of throwing myself on top of that puppy of a license like a Sgt. Rock hero flinging himself onto a live grenade to save the rest of his platoon?
I couldn’t do that last thing, because Donruss beat me to it.
When I think of non-sports cards, I don’t immediately think “Donruss.” And when I think “Donruss non-sport cards,” my mind trips back pleasantly to Odd Rods and images of Bill Spaceman Lee lookalikes stuffed into GTOs with engines the size of the Sears Tower protruding from the hood. I had actually forgotten that Donruss, just like every other cardmaker flush with sport-card loot, had gamboled barefoot through the poison ivy of the non-sport market in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
A smorgasbord of licenses and properties were laid out before these rich, innocent cardmakers. Some of the properties were jewels, some were paste, and some were the toneless, plotless brainchildren of committees of bean-counting corporate yes-men doing their best Wolf of Wall Street impersonations, movies that made Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate look like Seven Samurai and The Seventh Seal.
And then, underneath those, was Kazaam
It's no My Giant, that's for sure. And acting-wise, Shaq is no Georghe Muresan.
Since I had to read the copy on the promo card, you need to share my pain. “This summer, Shaquille O’Neal materializes into theaters in Kazaam, a major motion picture featuring Shaq in his first movie role as a wise-crackin’ Genie for the ‘90s,” the card reads. “And you can collect all of Shaq’s magic in Kazaam Trading Cards exclusively from Donruss this summer!”
And then, underneath this deathless prose, lest you get any ideas to the contrary, the card sports another big “Exclusively from Donruss.”
No problem, dude. You got this one all to yourself, free and clear.
You can see what Donruss was thinking. It couldn’t be any more transparent if their corporate skull was made out of cellophane. Shaq sells. Shaq sells. Anything Shaq sells. A Shaq movie’s gonna sell. And a Shaq card set of a Shaq movie has to sell. Right? RIGHT?
Amazingly, Shaq is not the worst thing about Kazaam. (He’s not the best thing either, but only because there is no sense in using the word “best” around Kazaam.) The worst thing is the slogan: “He's A Rappin' Genie With An Attitude ... And He's Ready For Slam-Dunk Fun!” The second-worst thing is the plot, which was fished out of a dumpster behind Nickelodeon’s world headquarters. The third-worst thing is the kid lead, Francis Capra, who is so one-dimensional that he makes the Sprouse twins in The Suite Life on Deck look like they’re going to jump out of the screen and plop in your lap. The fourth-worst thing is Shaq’s outfit. His Laker warmups would have been a far better choice than the neo-Babylonian tunic with cardboard bracelets. (The slippers are cool, though. They are without question the best part of the movie. In fact, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Kazaam are the only two movies where the best thing about them is the shoes.) The fifth-worst thing is Shaq.
Given the essential dreckiness of the movie, could there be any hope for the cards? Of course not. Kazaam the card set is even more formulaic than Kazaam the movie. There actually was trading-card potential here; a bad movie does not automatically translate into a lazy, indifferent set. Donruss could have cut up the slippers and made SlipperCards, or donated Shaq’s pants to a family needing emergency shelter. But Donruss was too far removed from its Odd Rod days to have any ideas on how to fun up a set of cards where the major characters are a basketball-star-turned-cheesy-genie, a nondescript kid, and a boombox. Donruss was just meatballin', trotting out the tired old formula in the service of a movie whose most effective marketing tactic was distracting people's attention from the movie. Uncle Allen Caplan would have known what to do with Kazaam, that’s for sure.
Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that trading cards are a disposable medium. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Fortunately, a Kazaam comes along every now and then to remind us.
Hard as it may be to believe, Kazaam did not represent the nadir of Donruss’ dalliance with the movies. We’ll go there next time.
In the meantime, if you’re an 11-year-old orphan girl, you’d best stay out of North Louisiana and away from strange old guys with beards. Not even Shaq’s gonna help you there.