Monday, July 4, 2011

Movies Worth Googling: Strange Movie Reviews by Jenny Orosel


I normally don’t dedicate an entire column to a single movie, but I really wanted to write about "The Birthday" (2004) and, try as I might, I couldn’t figure out another movie to pair it up with. Might be a good thing, might be a bad. It all depends on how you look at it.

Allow me to rewind about six years. Some friends and I were going to a midnight showing of "The Goonies" (1985) at the local art house theater. Before the show, the manager announced they had a special trailer, given to them by Corey Feldman himself. It was a new movie seeking distribution both produced by and starring Feldman. The manager spoke of it with enthusiastic tones, but something about his manner didn’t seen quite right.

And then we saw the trailer for "The Birthday".

It made the movie look…strange. Part slapstick, part Lovecraftian horror, I wasn’t sure if the movie wanted to be both, neither, either or none. The entire time, Feldman seemed to be channeling Jerry Lewis. Even during the trailer’s chilling moments, I was half expecting him to start up with the “Hey lady!” shtick. It looked painfully bad and I really wanted to see it. Occasionally after that I would do a search for the flick, either on Amazon, EBay or even Google Video. Nothing ever came of it, and while I had the movie in the back of my mind, I figured it would be one of those things lost to history, like a minor "The Day the Clown Cried" (EDITOR'S NOTE: released circa 1972, technically unfinished).

Fast forward to a few weeks ago I was in a used bookstore and, lo and behold, there was a German import DVD of "The Birthday", with Corey Feldman holding a bloody water glass on the cover. It was the same one. It had to be. Granted, I couldn’t be sure as the whole description was in German, but it had to be.

And it was.

And it was what I expected. And nothing like I expected. It was gloriously bad. But it also had extraordinary moments. While I was expecting Ed Wood, I’m not entirely sure what I got.

Feldman plays nebbish Norman Forrester (who, after now seeing more “Columbo” I see as much Peter Falk in his performance as Jerry Lewis), a pizza cook who just wants to impress his rich girlfriend at her father’s birthday party. He bought her a special gift and wants to tell her something special. Instead, he gets the blow-off from her, patronized by her dad, and either ignored or dismissed by the other upper-class guests. About halfway through the movie we find that, not only is the father’s party going on in the hotel that day, but the birth of a random elder god. Blood will be spilt, human sacrifices will be made, and nobody is sure who’s on which side. Norman sure isn’t sure. All he knows is that he still wants to make his girlfriend proud.

Feldman’s Falk/Lewis mash-up weakling was not the only two-dimensional performance. In fact, every character, while it seemed like the director was aiming for archetypes, were more caricatures. The girlfriend was your typical rich-girl snob, the father was snobbish wealthy patriarch. A second room full of pharmaceutical employees were partying in exactly the way you would expect frat boys to behave in their after-college party days. The person who swooped in to save the building (and the world) from the elder god’s birth had probably read all the Allan Quartermain novels. I couldn’t find anyone to root for because there was no one I could relate to.

The plot was faulted as well. The pacing was way off; it took half the movie to find out about the elder god, which rushed the second half in trying to get all the information out and all the action to occur. In that madness, a number of plot points were ignored, left out, or completely forgotten (what was that gift he wanted to give her? What did he want to say? How does this guy know about the birth of the elder god?). The ending was probably the least well planned part of the story. After four teaser endings, the movie ends, right in the middle of an action. I can understand what the director was trying to do—did he do it? Could he commit the ultimate act in order to save the world? But after those red herrings, this open ending felt like a rip off.

I know I’m making it sound like I hated the movie. And I really didn’t the first time around. Eugenio Mira, the director, has an incredible sense of style. From the opening shot, of a white elevator opening against a pure black back and foreground, and Norman stepping out into the seeming abyss, to a creation at the end made of the interconnected squirming bodies of all those who died during the film, each shot in between was crafted with just as much care. The visuals were definitely what made this movie. My reading upon that first viewing was that he was aiming for that stylized surrealism. And, to me, that would explain why the other factors were weak. I’ve seen a lot of surrealistic films, so when they try hard to be “weird”, whether with unrealistic characters or gaping plot moments, it stands out to me. It could be that this was his first movie, and he was trying to fit too much into it. It could also be that he’s one of those folks who can see the image in their mind, but not the story (if that’s the case with Mira, his best bet would be to become a Director of Photography. He could be fantastic in that job). It didn’t matter. I was thrilled to just sit back and watch the amazing images.

Then I decided to watch it with the audio commentary track. I regret that still.

There are some legendary DVD audio commentaries. The one for Clerks comes to mind where, not only did Kevin Smith explain how they were able to make the movie as cheaply as they did, but also took time to taunt Jason Mewes who had passed out from intoxication during the commentary. This was not like the "Clerks" (1994) commentary. There are also painfully awful commentaries, like any that Mel Brooks does. You would think that, to accompany gleeful comedies like "Young Frankenstein" (1974) or "Blazing Saddles" (1974) would have hilarious commentary tracks. Nope, instead he talks morosely about everyone in that movie who is now dead, and how miserable things are, casting a dark cloud over even the silliest of moments.

"The Birthday" commentary is not like that. It’s worse.

The audio track consists of Feldman and Mira talking. Sometimes about the movie, sometimes laughing hysterically at inside jokes that we, the audience, are not privy to, sometimes complaining that they have to do commentary on the extended cut of the film, thus making them late for their dinner reservations and how hungry they are. I was hoping for some symbolism to be explained, maybe better understanding of why he had the actors behave as they did, or even defend certain choices made with the plot. I thought I would get insight. Instead, I got Beavis and Butthead jokes (“huh huh…he said ‘Balls’!”) and somewhat pretentious self-congratulations between the two. Feldman voiced his frustration that people said he was channeling Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis or Inspector Clouseau (that last part I can’t see), when in fact, he modeled his character after Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)(I see that even less than Clouseau). Yes, he made the choice one hundred percent to act in that cartoonish way. It made me rethink how I saw the rest of the performances. Maybe Mira didn’t have them act as caricatures on purpose for any stylistic reason. No, it was just lazy directing that let them put in lesser performances. And that made me rethink my acceptance of the plot problems as part of the style. If he didn’t pay attention to the performances, he probably didn’t pay much attention to the plot. By the time the commentary was over (which took a lot longer than the movie itself, as I nodded off a couple times), I liked the movie less than when I first saw it. The lack of concern about the acting and writing made it harder to appreciate the visuals that he did pay attention to.


I learned a valuable lesson in watching "The Birthday". I won’t stop watching DVDs with the commentary track. But, if I find the commentary obnoxious or just plain bad, I will turn it off right away. Sometimes a director talking about his own movie can ruin the parts I do like. And I’d prefer to enjoy a movie because of my illusion than hate it because of their reality.

WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIE: As far as I can tell, the only non-festival release of "The Birthday" is this German disc, now out of print. You can find used copies on EBay for less than five dollars. Granted, to watch it in the US you either need a region-free player or a program on the computer that allows you to watch multiple regions (I recommend the VLC player. It’s a free download.)