Kicking the Tweets

The BFG (2016)

The Never-Bending Storyteller

It's easy to see the cynicism in Disney's recent streak of live-action remakes, designed as much, it seems, to play on parental nostalgia as to attract younger audiences. The Mouse House is not alone in this strategy, and I've spent more than enough time railing against Hollywood's rampant brand recycling. But there's something different about this studio's approach to the material: instead of jobbing out sequels and requels to inexpensive indie-film directors, they tend to go top-shelf, enlisting artistes like Kenneth Brannagh and Jon Favreau. It can be argued (and has been) that the updates versions are rote; don't bring anything new to the table; and lack the spirit of the originals. 

I was never a fan of Disney's animated features as a child. The movies I bothered to watch (and rarely finished) bored me to tears. That's heresy, I know, especially being an artist by trade, and one who understands that those filmmakers were essential to creating the language of film and animation. In short, my lack of emotional ties to (or even familiarity with) the originals left me wide open to appreciate the charms of new-millennium Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book. Yes they're unnecessary. Yes, they're just stories we already know, adorned in expensive technology. 

Here are two dirty little secrets about movies: none are necessary, and the "original" Disney films were mostly adapted from books. I'm sure, someone in the 1960s wondered why they should bother watching a singing-cartoon version of The Jungle Book when they could just as easily read Rudyard Kipling's novel. Sometimes, filmmaking is about pushing the medium's boundaries, whether making the leap from page to painted cells, or from painted cells to motion-captured, 3D-rendered animals.

Which brings us, at last, to Steven Spielberg's The BFG, Disney's big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved 1982 children's book. The simple story is, in a way, an appropriation of themes from Annie and Dahl's most famous work, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: an orphan finds herself in a world where oddball creatures use magic to create things we humans take for granted in our everyday lives. The young protagonist discovers that being a grownup is just as confusing, werid, and fraught with danger as being a kid; in the end, everyone learns that navigating adulthood is not a matter of growing up, but of holding on. All three are rags-to-riches tales. The two Dahl stories are stuffed with food porn and lyrical, tongue-twisting language.

In terms of presentation and pacing, The BFG has more in common with The NeverEnding Story than Annie or Wonka. The titular Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) snatches young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) from the orphanage late one night, after she catches him peering into people's bedrooms. He takes her to the land of giants, which he shares with a pack of incredibly mean, incredibly stupid, and much, much larger barbarians whose daily routine consists of sleeping and bullying the BFG.

We spend much of the first hour following Sophie around the good giant's home, into the caverns beneath it, and through the mountains beyond, where he captures, categorizes, and releases mankind's firefly-like dreams. Aside from a couple encounters with the head bad giant, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), which leads to unwitting games of hide-and-seek involving Sophie and oversized food/furniture, Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison aren't interested in ADD-kids-movie stuff--preferring instead to let us soak up the richly rendered details of this unseen world, and the lonely, put-upon steward whose job it is to add flavor to ours.

The second half is much more "eventful", and introduces the downright silly, satirical critique of adulthood we've come to expect from Dahl. I won't give too much away, but Sophie meets her own Daddy Warbucks in the form of the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), circa 1984. The tone shifts from pensive to playful as the cast expands to include Rafe Spahl and Rebecca Hall. They play members of the royal staff, who welcome Sophie and the BFG with kindness and curiosity, rather than the stuffiness and suspicion that would have taken the film down a more predictable, far less delightful path.

The key to my enjoyment of The BFG was the believability of Rylance and Barnhill's rapport. The key to that was believing in Ryance as this character, which was achieved, of course, through more groundbreaking digital effects work and performance capture. I was taken out of the film several times in the first hour, but not in a bad way. Because Spielberg spends so much time just letting us tag along with and explore the features of this imaginary world, we have ample opportunity to marvel at the painstakingly crafted features on the giant's face. Even with the exaggerated ears, nose, and hands, the BFG is unmistakably Rylance. The soul radiates from the eyes, and in the praise-worthy voice acting. In transitioning to the second half, I no longer thought of the Big Friendly Giant as a CGI creation, but as a lovable, mischievous character who connects with others by sharing his favorite fizzy fart-making drink.*

I'll drop a note of caution here regarding the ever-present problem of the 3D upcharge. Moviegoers would do well to stick with the 2D option when venturing out to the theatre. My one complaint about The BFG has to do with the gaudy planar separation between characters and their surrounding elements. This is especially troubling in the film's too-brief climax, in which Barnhill appears to be simply running and ducking on a treadmill in front of a projection screen that's also playing a 3D movie. I would imagine the flattening effect of a traditional showing would go far in sorting out this visual annoyance.

This movie would have been a favorite of mine had I seen it as an eight-year-old boy. I can imagine watching it curled up on the couch during a hundred rainy Saturday afternoons. It's sweet and goofy, and doesn't aspire to be anything but an odd and immersive adventure story. Many of Disney's live-action updates aim to evoke the Spielberg-ian thrill of 80s-era child-fantasy pictures, and they largely succeed. With The BFG, Spielberg reminds us why he's the giant on whose shoulders other filmmakers have stood for decades, while also proving that he's still the best at capturing, categorizing, and releasing the essence of our dreams.

*I'm not ashamed to admit that I joined the cacophony of laughing kids at my screening, when the BFG introduces this drink to high society.


Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Lightning in a Bottle of Piss

In the landmark Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Q Who?”, a bored, omnipotent alien named Q hurls the Starship Enterprise into deep space, far beyond any worlds previously explored by the United Federation of Planets. Captain Picard and his crew find themselves outmatched by a cybernetic race called the Borg, who exist only to consume the knowledge and resources of weaker civilizations. The Borg operate with a hive mind that cannot be reasoned with. Their shields adjust immediately to the frequency of enemy laser fire. Scariest of all, they have a seemingly endless supply of bodies to throw at any problem.

In the end (1989 Spoiler Alert!!!), Q whisks Picard and company back to safety before the galaxy’s most tenacious space hornets can overtake them. The Enterprise's relieved but skeptical bartender warns that, because the Borg are now aware of mankind, they will eventually make their way to our doorstep. I remember thinking at the time, “What a brilliant tease for future episodes!” But I also considered the resolution to be a narrative cheat: Was the best way out of an impossible situation to just make the situation magically un-impossible?

This problem stabs at the artificial heart of Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel (like many modern sequels) predicted by many but demanded by none. Twenty years ago, director Roland Emmerich’s alien-invasion movie transformed the summer blockbuster in the same way films like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and Jurassic Park had done before: drawing in record crowds with an accessible and exciting popcorn premise, executed with truly mind-blowing state-of-the-art technology. Whatever people thought of the film critically, there is no denying Independence Day’s influence on mass audiences’ appetite for bigger, louder, more sustained, and wholly believable destruction.

With its flames-of-Hell-tinged imagery of cities folding in on themselves, Resurgence’s trailers promise the return of a pissed off alien race looking for a do-over. In the twenty years since we kicked them off our planet, they’ve increased their numbers, improved their killing technology, and made way for one of their queens to personally supervise the new attack. Earth has regrouped, too, incorporating alien tech into personal and planetary defense systems. African warlords carry plasma rifles. Fighter jets zip around the moon.

Despite this progress, Earth is severely out-gunned. The aliens make short work of our global perimeter, demolish half the planet’s major cities, and begin a core-drilling project that will finish us off for good. Fortunately, we’ve got a Q in our back pocket, a shiny good-alien Apple product who gives us the secret sauce for another happy ending (no spoilers beyond this point, since I’ve already forgotten how we win—something about a bomb or a virus or…or something).

I suppose I should be happy, having been spared the rampant destruction porn I often rail against. The Resurgence trailers contain ninety percent of the Earth-set carnage pieces, which, in context, comprise such a monochrome mélange of explosions, rising tides, and twisted metal that it’s almost impossible to tell when we switch locales. I liked having to only think about the millions upon millions of lost lives lost for a few minutes. But the rest of the movie made me question why I had bothered to come out for it in the first place.

It’s certainly not the characters. Returning favorites Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Brent Spiner carry a bit of that 1996 spark, but their job is mostly to clear a path for the young stewards of this non-starter franchise. Will Smith’s brash, wisecracking pilot is long gone, having been critically injured in a plane crash.* Jesse T. Usher plays his son; his purpose, like co-star Liam Hemsworth, is to look great on screen and move the action forward, unencumbered by charisma (natural or manufactured). Same goes for Maika Munroe, who plays the assistant to Sela Ward’s boneheaded Commander in Chief.**

The cast's only bright spot is Charlotte Gainsbourg, solely because it's unfathomable to me that Lars von Trier's muse would show up in a movie like this. How does one go from jerking blood out of an unconscious Willem Dafoe's rock-hard penis in Antichrist to batting goofy-French-scientist's eyes at Jeff Goldblum? In a way, I'm glad Gainsbourg's in this movie, because a handful of Independence Day: Resurgence fans (shudder) will be curious enough to look up her previous work, and will subsequently be lured into the harrowing, psychosexual black hole of the Nymphomaniac movies. Serves 'em right.

I haven't watched the first Independence Day in a long time. I won't vouch for its quality as a capital-"F" film, but I vividly remember being wowed by the unprecedented, large-scale effects, and the surprisingly stirring look that comes over Randy Quaid's face as his character decides to sacrifice himself for all mankind. Pullman's iconic speech still stirs; Goldblum and Smith's rapport is still golden. Resurgence recycles these elements, but has no interest in improving on them.

Indeed, the whole production looks cheap, feels cheap, and has been, thankfully, repaid in kind by a tepid opening-weekend box office. Will this non-reception jeopardize the third film that's promised in Resurgence's Prometheus-style ending? Honestly, probably not. There'll be a part three and a part four down the line, each with larger threats, larger wrong-headed decisions by ostensibly smart characters, and larger let-downs as someone pulls the magic switch that sets everything right again--except for the countless dead, and for those of us foolish enough to expect more imagination from our final frontiers.

*And finished off, presumably, by failed contract negotiations.

**Maybe this is just election-year armchair psychoanalysis on my part, but Emmerich and his five screenwriters seem to be awfully terrified of the prospect of a female POTUS. At every turn, Ward's character is a cartoonishly tough reactionary who ignores level-headed advice in favor of poking the proverbial bear. I can't tell whether this portrayal is a half-baked critique of Hillary Clinton or of empowered women in general. Either way, it would be vaguely distasteful, bordering on offensive, if it weren't so laugh-out-loud, Mars Attacks-bad.


The Neon Demon (2016)

Who're You Wearing?

Before seeing The Neon Demon, I'd just about given up on Nicolas Winding Refn's films. Not only did I not click with Bronson and Drive, I outright despised them. I wondered, was I somehow deficient in my inability to appreciate these widely lauded works? Or had everyone else simply fallen for the latest pretentious art-house It Boy?

My biggest complaint about what I’ve seen of Winding Refn’s work has been his penchant for daring audiences to call him out on the shameless re-gifting of classic movies in film-snob wrapping paper. He has a brilliant eye for casting, and is a master of turning mash-ups into immersive audio/visual experiences. What is Bronson if not A Clockwork Orange meets Oz? What is Drive but The Transporter meets The Sopranos? Winding Refn’s movies tend to stop an hour before the end credits, and often devolve into staring contests and/or violent outbursts designed to keep the audience from snoring.      

Now that you know where I stand, here’s the bombshell:

I fell hard for The Neon Demon, a truly unsettling and unpredictable take on the allure of wealth, power, and fame. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen-year-old girl who lands in L.A. with modeling aspirations. She meets a photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman) online, who creates a ghoulish portfolio of Jesse as an exquisite corpse sprawled glamorously across a couch. An agency head (Christina Hendricks) takes notice, and Jesse instantly finds herself the envy of seasoned, catty models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).

The film's title is not a metaphor for the entertainment industry. It refers to an actual sinister presence in the story that manifests as a triad of glowing inverted triangles. The demon seduces, possesses, and consumes innocence in the most chilling cinematic life cycle since the Xenomorph. Winding Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham amplify everything we know about Corruption Movie tropes and Monster Movie tropes, while also taking sharp left turns at almost every given opportunity. The result is a film that feels like the slickest, sickest version of films we’ve already seen.

If Bret Easton Ellis had written a Black Swan-inspired reboot of The Devil’s Advocate while Suspiria played in the background, with Under the Skin’s score pumping through his earbuds, the result would look a lot like The Neon Demon. The clouds settle in gradually, as Jesse’s mixture of naivete and almost accidental self-awareness* are seized upon by an ever deepening bench of depraved, superficially charismatic parasites. She accepts one small temptation after another, until her beacon of virtue has been dimmed enough to allow the demon a sufficient opening. Once inside, the monster uses Jesse as a smorgasbord instead of a meat puppet, reveling in each bite of soul-degrading humiliation.

You might expect a traditional battle of wills at this point, perhaps with Dean fighting off a black-goo-dripping doppelganger of his would-be girlfriend, and screaming, “I know you’re still in there, Jesse!”** Or maybe Jesse wrestles control of herself from the monster just in time to triumph over Sarah, Gigi, and sinister makeup artist/former BFF Ruby (Jena Malone). That might well have happened, had Winding Refn and company not launched the third act into the fifth dimension. Without spoiling the climax, I’ll say The Neon Demon throws tradition out the window in the last thirty minutes, exploring (but never stating) the conditions that allow the monster to thrive. Jesse remains very relevant to the story, but the filmmakers make it very clear that this is not her story.

This is a multi-layered film about the intersections between art and commerce. There are many avenues to pursue here, but I’ll touch on three that stood out most:

1. Jack (Desmond Harrington) is a famous fashion photographer who gives Jesse her first bit of exposure. During their only scene together, Jack clears the set and demands that his subject disrobe, right before he cuts all the lights. Jesse complies, and we are left to wonder if Winding Refn will actually "go there".

He does, and the scene plays out as an intense sexual encounter--not between a man and an underage girl, but between an artist and his materials. Jack has fed the beast long enough, and to such an effective degree, that he is permitted to go to any extremes he desires, even using human bodies as canvases. As Jesse is painted, posed, and transformed from person into project, the scene's mood changes from one of terror to a kind of celebratory liberation. The interplay between Fanning, Harrington, and the camera is sensuous, frightening, and daring; it's everything art should be.

2. With a jawline that would've make Michelangelo weep, Bella Heathcoate's Gigi is conventional beauty personified. She casually rattles off the various nips, tucks, sucks, and flushes she's undergone in a quest to essentially replace every part of her body--inviting us (and Jesse) to wonder what the original Gigi even looked like. Heathcoate appears to be a natural beauty, which makes her character even creepier. By not making the actress up in cartoonish prosthetics or bandages to drive home the extensive work she's had done, Winding Refn makes a darker point about our inability to trust what we see.

Gigi and Sarah remain in the middle of the fashion-model food chain, which is as good as not being on it at all. They depend on being molded, photographed, and sold in perpetuity; Jesse's arrival on the scene pushes up their expiration date, and not even sycophantic loyalty to a renowned designer (Alessandro Nivola) can save them from the human clearance rack.

3. Hank (Keanu Reeves) runs the fleabag motel in which Jesse lives. He's a gatekeeper for the titular monster, and his real job is to maintain a steady stream of "talent" for it to feed on. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of young hopefuls arrive in Los Angeles every day seeking fame and fortune. Some get fast-tracked to an agency within thirty-six hours, like Jesse; others wind up in the room adjacent to hers, turned out by violent opportunists. The purest sustenance rises to the top, while the run-off strains through Hank's gunked-up mesh filter before eventually lining the crusty basin of Hollywood lore.

Cliff Martinez’s score rounds out the film’s superb visuals and infinitely edible themes. Its eerie hybrid of his Drive synth and the otherworldly bio-beats of Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score evoke equal parts dread and romance—a highly effective aural metaphor for the titular monster’s dark enticements. The movie and soundtrack end with Sia’s haunting pop anthem “Waving Goodbye”, which pulsates like a brain-eating worm; the rhythms are upbeat, but there’s something disturbing about the vocalist’s sullen delivery that reminds me of the duality of Gigi’s striking beauty and rotten insides.

As unlikely as it sounds, Nicolas Winding Refn has directed one of my favorite films of the year so far. It takes a deft touch to comment on the vapidity of an industry built on artifice—without the commentary itself becoming stale. I don’t know if I was missing this touch in the filmmaker’s other work, or if his latest is just the perfect vehicle for his knack for super-charged appropriation. The Neon Demon is a near-religious cinematic experience that ate me up and spit me out.

*She claims to not be good at anything except looking pretty.

**Shades of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.


Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate (2016)

The Artistry in Disaster

As a kid, I watched Son of Svengoolie with my dad, and learned what I thought was a profound lesson about the only two kinds of movies in this world:

1. The ones that played in movie theatres

2. The schlock-of-the-week that popped up on TV shows like this, in which wacky hosts made bad films better by telling jokes over them.

In my teens, Tim Burton's Ed Wood shifted my perspective. I'd assumed that the guy behind big-screen studio weirdness like Beetlejuice and Batman would turn the storied production of Wood's sci-fi flop, Plan 9 From Outer Space, into a farce. True, Burton played a lot of the material for laughs, but by peeling back the onion of Wood's struggles so thoroughly, he created a seminal and sincere piece of art about what it means to be an artist.

Around this time, an employee at HBO Downtown discovered a VHS tape of a long-lost film that had only screened once, in an El Paso, Texas theatre in 1966. Manos: The Hands of Fate was, at the time, an obscure, nothing picture, forgotten by time and neglected by those who'd worked on it. The tape made it to the offices of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the rest, as they say, is history.

One of MST3K's most enduring episodes, the Manos critique showed the film to be almost unwatchable, even with witty commentary from stranded space travelers Joel Hodgson, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot. A cult following was born, and the film seeped into the pop psyche, thanks to bizarre characters like Tom Neyman's The Master and his awkward, dirty servant, Torgo (John Reynolds).

Jackey Neyman Jones and Laura Mazzuca Toops' Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate gave me another Ed Wood moment: Until I was invited to review the new making-of book, I'd never seen the movie on which it was based. I made up for this glaring oversight by watching Manos twice in a month--once before reading the book, and once after; the first time without the MST3K accompaniment, the second time with it. At the end of this experiment, I had a whole new appreciation for the film.

Growing Up with Manos is Neyman Jones' episodic account of acting in the film as a six-year-old girl; of reconnecting with the film decades later; and of mending her strained relationship with her father, “Master” Tom Neyman.

Neyman Jones and Mazzuca Toops open their story with Jackey's account of a frantic 1993 phone call from her dad, who'd happened to catch Manos on Mystery Science Theater late one night. Like everyone else, the Neymans had assumed the film was lost to time, but there it was, resuscitated by the airwaves and breathing strange, new life. The authors bookend the story in 2015, nearly twenty years into a bona fide pop subculture that has spawned tribute songs, plays, a video game, and a lawsuit over who has the rights to make a sequel.

The journey from Point A to Point B began with the relationship between businessman Harold P. “Hal” Warren and artist Tom Neyman. Warren fancied himself a mover and a shaker, with tenuous connections to Hollywood. He saw El Paso as an untapped creative community, bursting with the potential to become a new entertainment hub between coasts. Warren recruited Neyman and his colleagues from El Paso's Festival Theatre to help him make a movie, promising mathematically untenable back-end percentages and a calling card for their beloved community.

The Neymans forged the lion’s share of Warren's dream. Tom and his wife (also named Jackey), had created a progressive artistic paradise in their home, raising their daughter to appreciate acting, jazz, and mixed visual media. Warren talked the agreeable family into starring in his film, decorating the sets, designing and creating the costumes and props, and even lending their dog to the production. It was clear early on that Warren’s filmmaking skills were questionable at best. But he was so persuasive (and the promise of greater things for El Paso was so seductive) that the fictitious story of a con man building a wall of unquestioning human souls to insulate himself against a (justifiably) skeptical world became a reality.

The authors intercut the main storyline with nice little detours exploring how practically everyone on the film crew wandered into Warren's bizarre sphere of influence. Some are funny, some are probably amusing asides in the subjects' otherwise typical lives, but John Reynolds’ story underscores what is so damned special about Growing Up with Manos.

Reynolds was known in El Paso as a serious young actor and a troubled, gentle soul. Neyman Jones recounts her strong impressions of him as a giving person who treated the six-year-old girl on set with as much respect as his adult co-stars. As a character, and as a performance, Torgo is so utterly strange that it’s unclear how much of Reynold’s infamous stuttering, fidgety creepiness was his own creation, versus the result of poor direction and writing on Warren’s part. Only those that knew Reynolds would be able to say for sure, as Manos was the actor’s first and last film role. He committed suicide one month before it premiered.

This tragedy proved to be one of three ominous indicators that Manos would not be the big break everyone had hoped for. Between Reynold’s death, a disastrous rough-cut screening at Warren’s home, and a premiere event that could only have been made worse (or better) by a four-alarm fire, Growing Up with Manos expertly takes us from one one gut-punch to the next to the next. There's real drama here, real heartbreak, as a once vibrant creative community realizes their folly too late. The real-life Master's spell lifts abruptly, leaving them momentarily blank-eyed.

I appreciated Manos more after reading Growing Up with Manos. The added context doesn’t improve Hal Warren's misguided and shoddy film, but knowing how much sincerity went into the production makes it impossible to dismiss. Neyman Jones and Mazzuca Toops’ book is sincere, too, as well as purposeful, moving, and revelatory. Someone should make a movie out of it.


Evil Bong: High 5 (2016)

Exploitational Drugs

It's hard to admit, but I might be the target audience for Full Moon's Evil Bong movies. My only memories of the first three involve A) reviewing them, and B) meeting writer/director Charles Band and star Robin Sydney after a screening of Evil Bong 3-D.* I'm pretty sure I skipped the fourth film (entitled, you guessed it, Evil Bong: 420), but can't say for sure. I've never been stoned in my life, but I watched Evil Bong: High 5 a couple hours before dawn, on very little sleep, and fully appreciated the characters' aimlessness and giddy disorientation.

The film opens with series regulars/professional slackers Larnell (John Patrick Jordan), Sarah Leigh (Sydney), and Rabbit (Sonny Carl Davis) trapped in an alternate dimension ruled by the sassy and ruthless Evil Bong (voiced by Michelle Mais). Accompanying them are what I can only assume are hold-overs from the installment I missed: a woman named Velicity (Amy Paffrath) and a homicidal cookie-puppet called The Gingerdead Man (Bob Ramos), who's on loan from his own Full Moon franchise. Despite having the run of a pot-smoker's paradise, the gang decide they'd rather live on their own terms, and conspire to get back home.

Evil Bong has other plans, and threatens to separate the group for eternity if they don't help her take over Earth. She sends Larnell, Rabbit, and Gingerdead Man back to California with a mandate to sell a million dollars worth of ultra-potent weed in thirty days. Back in Bong World, two horny, topless lesbians keep an eye on the girls (who, naturally, are kinda into it--because that's the kind of movie we're dealing with).

From here, Evil Bong: High 5 becomes the version of Clerks that Kevin Smith might have made if he'd discovered weed before 2008.** Comprised mostly of stationary group shots and close-ups of people standing behind a retail counter or in front of a green screen, Band's film devolves into a parade of wacky-customer gags and an infommercial for his company's line of politically incorrect collectible dolls. Yes, one of the super-weed customers is a shady local businessman whose camera magically captures its subjects as slickly packaged action figures. When a trio of stereotypical gay filmmakers twirls into the store, we see the star of the low-budget-movie-within-the-low-budget movie re-imagined as a figurine called "The Butt Pirate". A picture-snapping Asian tourist becomes "The Gook". And don't get me started on the mask-wearing African pygmy, "Ooga Booga".

This is all way worse than it sounds, but I can't ascribe ill-intent to Band or anyone else involved. The movie is way too juvenile to be sinister, and I doubt its core viewers could be bothered to rise through the pot smoke and leave the couch, much less work up enough energy to hate. Like Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, High 5 is the most obnoxious kid at the kids' table, yelling obscenities across the room to get a rise out of the grown-ups.

Full disclosure: I found some of the writing to be quite funny. Not sharp, per se, but stupid-funny enough for some welcome pre-sunrise chuckles. My favorite: early in the film, Larnell's grandfather (Jacob Witkin) wanders into the store just to insult his disappointing young heir, at one point deadpanning, "You look like something a raccoon shat out after Halloween."

Even more surprising, I dare say Evil Bong's visuals have improved since the first film. The green screen effects are still dodgy, and the creature props still exist in the maddening gray zone between intentionally poor and ironically poor. But one shot in particular reminded me of a lush comics illustration: Rabbit blasts Larnell with Evil Bong's super-smoke, and the scene's purple and green lighting enhances the vapors coming off John Patrick Jordan's head, forming a swirling halo that looks like The Joker by way of Charles Burns.

High 5 is not the last Evil Bong film. The "spliff-hanger" of an ending and end-credits title-reveal promise as much. I can't say I'm looking forward to the next one, but I admire Band's persistence in reuniting this cast and crew every couple years to give his audience me a cheap, quick, and increasingly bizarre high.

*It was technically a 4-D experience, as we lucky patrons were given scratch-and-sniff cards with which to further interact with the on-screen antics. You can't imagine what that theatre smelled like. Or maybe you can.

**I haven't seen Smith's latest, Yoga Hosers, yet, but I had many flashbacks to the trailer while watching Evil Bong: High 5.