Sunday 22 April 2012

Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury (2011)

Director: Garrett Brawith
Stars: Kevin Sorbo and Danny Trejo

While Garrett Brawith may still be best known for his starring role in the Bud Light Magic Fridge commercial, which aired during Superbowl XL, that's far from the only thing he's done. Not having ever watched a Superbowl, even for commercials, I didn't discover him until this year when I screened a festival submission called Empress Vampire in which he both acted and did stunts. It's a bad film but it is at least highly memorable, as it's about a cute, nymphomaniac, bisexual, very flexible Chinese female vampire with a thick accent, floor length hair and a large collection of wild costumes, played by a Chinese police news anchor turned porn star and long hair fetish model. Given that the latest phase of Brawith's versatile film career, working for Ross Patterson's Street Justice Films, included directing this one, I wonder if that flavoured this. After all, this isn't really about making a bad film, it's about making a bad film memorable.

The gimmick is that Poolboy is supposedly not a new film, it's the reappearance of an old one, the surviving half of a lost pair of action features from 1990. Poolboy: No Lifeguard on Duty was never released, as it was accidentally destroyed by an angry whaler. Poolboy II: Drowning Out the Fury, however, is seeing the light of day again because of an internet petition. A neat touch is that these legends of bad cinema were made by a gonzo filmmaker called St James St James, who was ten years old at the time. Having seen the trailer as well as FDR: American Badass!, the next picture for both Patterson and Brawith, I had a rough idea what to expect and I didn't miss by much. It's almost as fast paced and it's just as full to the brim with outrageous gags, political incorrectness and wild imagination. It isn't as consistently funny and the actors don't nail their parts quite as well, but it's close. It certainly works on its own but is even better as half of a pair.

Brawith's movie, Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury, stars Kevin Sorbo and Danny Trejo, with a few other faces you'll recognise, such as Jason Mewes, Robert LaSardo and Richard Karn. St James's movie within a movie, of the same name, has a cast that would have been even more familiar to viewers in its imaginary universe. Sorbo, in what may be a career redefining role on the level of Leslie Nielsen's in Airplane, is Jan Van Hammer, an action film legend, as Vietnam vet Sal Bando, who comes home from the war (and a long alcohol fuelled but numerically challenged recovery period) to find that California is full of Mexicans. 'What's happening to America?' he asks. There's even one in his house, banging his wife, and when Bando takes offence and steals Eduardo's poolboy company van, Eduardo responds by murdering Sal's wife and son in cold blood, leaving them as motionless mannequins, floating in his pool.

Now, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, so we're gifted with some sort of conspiracy that would render this film required viewing for anti-immigration nuts. The leader, who Bando naturally feels he has to hunt down with extreme prejudice, is Caesar, played by Tijuana Maxx, played in turn by Danny Trejo. Eduardo was one of Caesar's brothers but he has many more to throw at Bando, who is now taking back California one pool at a time. You can write the rest of the story yourself, of course. There's Capt O'Malley, the old war buddy working the murders who unwisely trusts him not to start a war with the Mexicans. There are action scenes with bad lines, bad puns and bad choreography. There are gunfights, leading to my favourite line of dialogue: 'I never want to die in stock footage, homes.' And there's a man in the shadows behind Caesar, who may just be the most outrageously wrong villain of all time.
Needless to say, the story is familiar, full of snippets from other movies, most obviously Forrest Gump, but mostly it borrows from the tones of the action sub-genres referenced, overt in the names of St James's actors: Littlerock Clydesdale, Toco LaGuitara and Bucktown Sweetback the most outrageous. The other main influence is apparent from the opening credits, as St James lands more credits in a row than even Tommy Wiseau. Sure, it begins like a Cirio Santiago film but it doesn't take long for The Room to manifest itself. The reason I'm a devotee of The Room is because it's the best textbook available on how not to make a movie. It isn't merely that Wiseau made every mistake that could be made, it's that he did so archetypally and he still can't figure out what he did wrong. They're so fundamental that finding 'Room moments' in other films is a solid illustration of what they did wrong. They're absolutely everywhere here, deliberately so.

Thus we get characters who change inexplicably over the course of the film, inconsistent lighting that blurs night and day, even a recasting of a character partway through. The bad facial hair in Nam must be a tribute, as must the gratuitous sex scenes during the ninth inning stretch. Going back to those Filipino action movies, there's also bad dubbing, repeated stock footage and visible prop guys. There are plot conveniences everywhere. There's a great shot where a door closes and we see the boom operator in silhouette, another where a corpse moves on the news. My favourite goof apparently wasn't deliberate, though I have to take that with a grain of salt. Mark Curry, playing Capt O'Malley, forgets his dialogue, so calls 'Line!' A script girl reads it and he repeats it, never leaving character, and the scene moves on undaunted with no cuts. The genius is in the editor's decision to leave it in untouched. It's priceless, even if it was a set up.
Patterson always keeps a large part in the films he writes for himself and this is no exception, as he plays the gonzo filmmaker St James St James as an adult. He sits back in his castle, adding reminiscences to proceedings, and he's a gem. One neat touch to these scenes is that he has an eyepatch, but hey, that worked for John Ford and Nicholas Ray. A better one is the presence of stand up comedienne Edi Patterson as Peters, presumably his personal assistant with benefits. She's really only there to add flavour to these scenes, but she's absolutely awesome. I'd watch this entire movie again just to see her antics, very possibly improvised during filming, but much of the joy may be in the improvisation and thus lost on a repeat viewing. Maybe there's more of her in the made for TV short, St James St James Presents: Delirium Cinema, in which he looks at the 100 worst movies of all time, all of which he made, without any realisation that they're awful.

This is awful too, but in a very specific way, and how awful it is amounts to sheer genius. As with Empress Vampire, it's memorably bad. Patterson throws so much energy and so many ideas into his scripts and Brawith keeps them moving so quickly that by the time you finish laughing at one gag there are two more to take its place. It's like a cinematic hydra and by the time it's over you may have a dozen things to remember and reenact at school the next day. Personally, I love how well they understand what makes good bad movies good (say that ten times fast) and how well they translated that onto the screen. Watching carefully to locate each deliberate goof should be a drinking game. Wanting to watch The Room on the big screen with these guys is now top of my Christmas list. Some may love the recurring gag of Bando's war buddy's arm, for example, blown off in the explosion that killed him and which he brings home. I liked that it kept changing colour.
As with FDR: American Badass! this is a film you're either going to love or hate. If it isn't your cup of tea then you're going to be hurt and offended, then you're going to tell everyone you know how objectionable it all is. If it is your cup of tea, then you're going to be entertained massively, then you're going to tell everyone you know how objectionable it all is. Either way, it's going to help build the word of mouth publicity that Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury is already reaping the benefits from. Street Justice Films doesn't have much money to play with, but they know how to use it and they're prolific enough that each distribution sale is going to swell their coffers so that they can make another one. If they can keep that momentum going, they're going to be a force to be reckoned with. The worst thing fans can do is run out of Ross Patterson movies to watch. Fortunately this film and 2010's Screwball: The Ted Whitfield Story are both on Netflix.

As I mentioned in my FDR: American Badass! review, it's hard to place that film in the context of American film comedy and it's just as hard to place this one too. It really feels like Patterson is carving out a new niche for himself, where he's already becoming his own comparison. What's this one like? Well it's like a Ross Patterson movie. Comparing each of the three films I've seen thus far, the constants are energy and offense, so maybe like an Abrahams/Zucker/Abrahams movie written by the Monty Python team and directed by Mel Brooks. Poolboy has a lot more of the Spinal Tap mockumentary vibe too, as does Screwball, but Patterson pulls in so much else that it's somehow unfair to build a description of his work only through comparisons. If anything, the most accurate would be to a Saturday Night Live skit, or maybe half a dozen or more of them, expanded to feature length. The catch to that is that Patterson's movies are funny.

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