Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet

Nancy (2018)

Andrea Riseborough was one of last year’s clear standouts as a breakthrough performer, although she’s been steadily working for years. Between her haunting presence as the titular role in Mandy and her farcical incredulousness in The Death of Stalin (combined with my personal years-late chance viewings of Oblivion & Never Let Me Go), I feel like I had been bowled over by her talent from several drastically different directions, yet had very little grasp on who she is in the real world. Riseborough is a kind of personae chameleon, always impressive but rarely recognizable in her wildly varied roles & costumes. It was wonderful, then, to find a movie where she was front & center as the POV-commanding protagonist. Mandy may be the higher profile work for the still-rising actor, but she isn’t as spotlighted in the narrative as the title might imply. In Nancy, however, we never lose sight of Riseborough’s titular character, who drifts along through a quiet personal crisis with a wide-eyed stare as the audience tags along in a similar stupor. It’s an excellent showcase for the shapeshifting actor – not only because of her uncharacteristically increased screen time, but also because Nancy herself is an unknowable, unrecognizable enigma.

Nancy is a depressive pathological liar who lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled, verbally abusive mother. We’re introduced to her as she drifts between low-level temp jobs & seemingly meaningless grifts – faking pregnancies, Photoshopping fictional vacations to North Korea, and blogging under imaginary personae. These aren’t money-hungry con jobs either (even though she could really use the money). They came across as desperately hollow attempts to form human connections with strangers, whether or not they’re hinged on complete fabrications. The central conflict of the film is in the audience’s unease with how much we’re willing to believe her motivations & her reliability as a POV anchor. The biggest meaningless grift of her life falls in her lap as she’s watching late-night TV news and a little girl who’s been missing for 30 years is aged through computer simulation to look exactly like her. Shocked, Nancy contacts the missing girl’s parents and suggests that she might be their daughter, recounting half-remembered stories of being abducted as a child. We have no idea whether to believe Nancy, whether she believes herself, or whether her presence in the still-grieving couples’ home is a positive or negative impact. Nancy mostly remains an unrecognizable, haunted-looking enigma to us – the perfect Andrea Riseborough role.

In most ways, Nancy offers little more than what you’d expect from a low-budget film festival release. Ann Down, Steve Buscemi, and John Leguizamo all put in grounded, well-considered performances in the exact kind of supporting roles that attract notable actors to these kinds of projects. Peter Raeburn (who frequently collaborates with Jonathan Glazer) fortifies the atmosphere with a chilling, otherworldly score that underlines Nancy’s permanently lost stasis with a distinct sense of menace. The plot has some strong Lifetime Original Movie energy to it, but it’s no more outlandish or sensational than real-life accounts like Three Identical Strangers. The film’s only shortcoming in quality control is the state of Riseborough’s wig, which looks as if it might spin like a helicopter blade and fly the fuck away at any second. Riseborough has no trouble putting in an excellent performance despite her terrible wig, however, singlehandedly elevating the material from standard indie film fodder to puzzling character study. By the end of Nancy I’m not sure I got any more insight into who Riseborough or Nancy are as people, but I did find their mysterious magnetism to be perfectly matched in a way that made for a great movie regardless.

-Brandon Ledet

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

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There are few films, campy or otherwise, that better exemplify the fine wine rule than Super Mario Bros. The first & only live action Nintendo adaptation continuously gets better with age & I fall further under its intoxicating spell every time I watch it. This is a box office bomb critics have long slammed as definitive proof that video game adaptations are an inherently bad idea, but those marks against its character matter less with every passing year. Super Mario Bros. is a cartoonish fantasy comedy that somehow, unfathomably marries elements of Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? into one unholy cacophony of cinematic cheese & bloat. I marvel at this film’s sheer audacity every time I watch it, just as I find myself continually reeling from its grocery store joke book humor in the exact same breath. Without the pressure for Super Mario Bros. to prove or disprove that a video game adaptation could possibly be worthwhile (there’s now a crowded field of examples to swing that conversation either way you want it to go), the film has found a nice, comfortable space of its own as a cult-worthy camp fest. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in a fun & above all memorable way that dares you to sour on its 90s relic antics, but never gives you a solid reason to. Super Mario Bros. is a great film. It’s a little sad that three decades later it still feels a little transgressive to say so.

The only video game imagery that graces the screen in Super Mario Bros. is an opening prologue featuring pixelated dinosaurs in a fictional version of reality where the force of the meteor that extinguished the dinos & started the Ice Age created an alternate dimension in which humans evolved from reptiles instead of apes. If that doesn’t sound like a video game to you, much less the plumber-and-princess adventure game that iconically defines the medium, that’s because this movie is floating in its own bizarre orbit lightyears outside the property it’s supposedly adapting. There are video game-type dinos in that opening prologue, though, which proves that the husband-wife directorial team that helmed this major studio disaster are aware that Super Mario Bros. previously existed as a game with its own characters, motivations, and basic aesthetic. They just chose to ignore all that in favor of their own bonkers sense of whimsy, a fantasy realm that calls into question whether or not they’re also aware that there’s no possible way that the dino-killing meteor crash site could’ve been in Brooklyn or that a reptilian-evolved humanity would be so different from our primate selves that they’d be almost entirely unrecognizable as humans at all. No matter. This is a big budget kids’ fantasy adventure at heart, so its faithfulness to video game lore or basic science is almost entirely beside the point in the question of its entertainment value.

There are, admittedly, a few details of the Super Mario Bros. film that vaguely resemble their video game source material. They at least included some of the same characters: Mario & Luigi are Italian plumbers from Brooklyn, NY, which feels about as faithful to their video game visages as you can get. Princess Peach is now Princess Daisy for some unexplained reason, but it’s a mild change at best and the boys still have to venture out to rescue her from the reptilian clutches of an evil monarch named Koopa, which is more or less where the video game’s narrative begins & ends. Other details begin to get a lot fuzzier, though. Instead of being a giant, scary turtle-dragon motherfucker that lives in a castle full of lava, Koopa looks an awful lot like Dennis Hopper doing a dead on impersonation of Donald Trump (complete with the gaudy tower & political grandstanding). Toad is the furthest from his original form, ditching his miniature guru looks from the game in favor of a delightfully out-of-place, full-sized Mojo Nixon singing dumb protest songs about King Koopa on street corners. Staying faithful to the video game can be a double edged sword, though, as is exemplified by the baby dino Yoshi, who is cute as a button in this film, but also much more along the lines of Jurassic Park-type dinosaur puppets than what his video game creators likely intended. One of the reasons Super Mario Bros. stands out as such enjoyable schlock is that it embraces this damned if you do, damned if you don’t mentality whole-heartedly and just runs wild with the freedom adapting a video game with a very thin backstory affords it. It includes just enough characters & visual cues to resemble the Super Mario Bros. game at a glance, but does anything but keep it safe in the way it fleshes out their universe.

The most common argument against cinematic video game adaptations is that they necessitate a backstory where none is truly needed. No one playing the Super Mario Bros. game is likely to care exactly how or why the princess they’re rescuing was captured by an evil dino turtle dragon; they just hop in the green pipes & smash the mushroom-shaped baddies that get in the way of saving her. A movie requires a little more narrative coddling & a lot of the fun of Super Mario Bros. is in tracking how it either stays faithful to the game’s basic layout or disregards it completely on a minute to minute basis. The film is confident enough in its own right to exist as a standalone property that it ditches the fantasy genre brick & mortar castles of the video game for a distinct Blade Runner-style of urban dystopia. However, it also bends over backwards to include a way for Koopa’s guards to shoot the video game’s fireballs or make sense out of the role mushrooms & fungus have to play in all this (in the shape of a hideous fungal life form that would give Cronenberg nightmares). In some ways the film completely runs wild, like in its creation of an alternate dimension where the entire globe is one vast desert outside a single metropolis or in its de-evolution weapons that can turn people “back” into lizards. There’s also a few areas of compromise between the two extremes, like an inclusion of goombas that makes them out to be de-evolved lizard people instead of tiny mushroom monsters so that both properties can get equal representation. Super Mario Bros. plays along just enough to pass as a video game adaptation, but takes tremendous glee in constructing its own over-the-top fantasy realm where lizard people fight over a dino dictator’s crumbs & dance “Thriller” video-knockoff routines to bullshit like “Everybody Do the Dinosaur.” It’s an insane spectacle from front to end and because it feels little need to stay close to its source material’s limited backstory beyond its basic sketch and it’s a pleasantly unique spectacle at that.

Divorced from its source material, Super Mario Bros. is barrels of vapid fun. I honestly believe there are few children’s films from its era that match it in terms of ambitious set design, campy humor, and pure, directionless inanity. A lot of the film’s charms are a credit to the performances of Bob Hoskins & John Leguizamo as Mario Mario & Luigi Mario (speaking of video game background info that didn’t need to be developed), as well as Hopper’s Koopa-Trump & Harry Potter’s wicked aunt, Fiona Shaw, as his soul-sucking sidekick. Hoskins in particular is pretty great as the titular plumber & I honestly believe this film is his best work outside his iconic turn in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It’s way too easy to buy Hoskins as a spaghetti-slurping Brooklynite, to the point where I’m never truly convinced that the now-deceased actor actually hailed from Britain. Besides the cartoonish performances from the cast, I also appreciate how intricately detailed its production design can be. There’s a consistency in the leather spikes fashion wear that seem so popular in Koopa’s alternate dimension Brooklyn & I’m always picking up on new, small details hiding elsewhere in the fake city’s dingy nooks & crannies: Mario’s NYC apartment features a plunger rack instead of a gun rack; there are tiny lizard rodents fighting over the city’s plentiful trash; the de-evolution chamber is operated by a Duck Hunt controller; Mario & his girlfriend have plans to attend WrestleMania; a run-down cinema is screening I Was a Teenage Mammal, etc. Then there’s the now-disturbing shot of the Twin Towers partly dissolving thanks to Koopa’s evil deeds, an image that looks strikingly similar to a real life tragedy from a decade after this film’s release. As much fun as these grimy details can be, however, this is still just a silly children’s media fantasy, a fact that becomes apparent when everything magically, inexplicably reverts back to normal once Koopa is defeated (in a moment punctuated by Mario delivering the glorious one-liner “Later, alligator” to the evil, reptilian brute).

It’s a shame that Super Mario Bros. was scorned for its absurd deviations from its paper thin source material in its time. In the decades since it’s become increasingly apparent that devotion to its video game roots would have left the film far more mild & forgettable that it ended up being by learning to cut the kite strings & float on its own over-the-top, over-budget inanity. This is one remarkably silly movie and it’s amazing that it ever managed to reach theaters in the first place. My only complaint at this point is that it teased a sequel that never arrived because audiences were more than eager to let it die on arrival. Continuing down this absurd path could’ve lead to something even more amusing & special had audiences given it the chance.

-Brandon Ledet