Jun. 18, 2008 - Issue #661: Cowboy Junkies
DVDetective - America’s finest direct-to-DVD release and the plight of the turtle
These headlines are from “America’s Finest News Source,” The Onion, a satirical newspaper that’s most widely read online. Now, with The Onion Movie, print satire’s been spun into celluloid. The result could’ve been poor—after the script was penned a few years ago by then-editor Robert Siegel and writer Todd Hanson, Fox Searchlight wouldn’t release it, and current Onion management has distanced themselves from it. But while it may not make you cry with laughter, The Onion Movie is pretty sharp. (Only the Deleted Scenes and two outtakes near the movie’s end are pointless, suggesting how senselessly offensive the movie could have become but thankfully didn’t.)
The allusive, subtle voice of satirical writing could have become too concrete or shrill on film, but the stories-turned-episodes here mostly work. The storyline is thin, though the almost-too-zany ending ties the episodes together fairly well. At its worst, this is a sketch comedy film, with some much-needed social and political bite, that’s far superior to any Saturday Night Live movie.
That dental floss of a storyline hangs on Onion TV News anchor Norm Archer (Len Cariou), who feels the increasing pressure of corporate influence—by Friday, the newscast will be blatantly promoting the new flick Cockpuncher (in which Steven Seagal actually plays himself).
A lot of the humour reduces our moronic pop culture to their only slightly lower common denominator. So Cockpuncher exposes similar action movies for what they are—guys trying to prove their toughness by acting like dicks and beating the manliness out of other guys. A Spears-like Melissa Cherry affects Bible Belt naïveté about her lyrics and videos, which overflow with sexual innuendo. Canadian actor Brendan Fletcher goes all out as a white guy acting all street rapper with his white friends who hang at the local 7-11, only to be profiled by the cops as a “Negro”—it’s a hilarious shot at the stupidity of suburban kids loving songs about bling-bling and the ’hood when they can’t possibly understand racism, the ghetto or poverty.
The Onion Movie does trade too much in stereotypes and its meta-commentary—polite, bowtie-wearing black men criticize the film’s portrayal of African-Americans—is just a flimsy license to offer more black-guy-from-the-street characters. There are few women and the film could use more adaptations of The Onion’s local news stories (“Local Area Man Has Misplaced His Black Socks”) or the nuanced, character-based oddity of the sketch where a film star comes back from rehab and develops a “Nightmarish Addiction To Life” in that insufferably sunny, celebrity way. The film wisely stops at 75 minutes, after some of its later sketches are getting over-long and forced.
But a brilliant fake ad for “Kostman’s—The Penis People” (they can get a man’s penis out of any hole) is both a parody of low-budget repair-service commercials and a take-it-almost-too-far satire of the white mainstream’s catering to rampant male horniness. In the end, it’s hard to fault a comedy that incisively points out the sheer absurdity of a Murder Mystery Role-Playing Game or the pointless cheeriness of yet another inspirational, triumph-over-suffering fluff piece of reporting.
The story in The Chances of the World Changing may seem made for a bad Onion headline—“Man Retreats Into Shell Of Obsession To Save Turtles”—yet the bespectacled Richard Ogust is not as myopic as he appears. He knows his life’s in “shambles” and he’s well aware of the wider world, unlike, say, Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man. Ogust, who saved and cared for 1200 turtles and tortoises (trying to build an “insurance colony” to preserve the rare creatures’ genetic stock) in his Manhattan penthouse, speaks quietly, even with a curious fragility.
But that’s when he does speak. First-time director Eric Daniel Metzgar makes the rookie mistake of too much voiceover. He tells us a lot about Ogust, offering his backstory, even the moment that set the man off on his strange new life, but he doesn’t let Ogust relate that fateful day when he decided to save a terrapin turtle in a New York restaurant from becoming soup. And while Ogust seems to shy away from putting his personal story on film—he’s vague about the writing he was doing or the ways in which the various dots of his childhood connected to form his adult self—he does hope his work will spark others to come up with perhaps better ways to preserve these hard-backed creatures, so endangered by the Asian Turtle Trade. (Around 30 000 are bought and killed for soup and food in Asian markets every day, while only 12 000 have been given a home in the US.)
So there’s a disappointing vagueness around Ogust, his story, his attraction to turtles and around the creatures themselves or the efforts to protect and breed them. Still, the film raises a crucial question. Can the world ever change enough—will we ever look far enough beyond our own species—so that, one day, these animals can flourish again? The answer seems clear in Ogust’s own case—after five years of moving around, spending $500 000, plans for a massive turtle holding site falling through and fighting environmental agency bureaucracy, he has to resolve his own crisis first, not the turtles’s. V
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