Bloodsport

He has undeniable charisma.  There’s no questioning his considerable athleticism.  And yet, he has always struggled to deliver a natural performance.

Jean Claude Van Damme movies all suffer from the same problem.  They allow him to talk.  Whether it’s his thick Belgian accent or forced delivery, he loses you the second he opens his mouth.  Not that he’s ever given great material to work with.

In Bloodsport, his breakout feature from 1988, he plays the real-life Frank Dux (pronounced “dukes”, not “ducks”), a military man determined to spend his furlough in Hong Kong against the wishes of his superiors.  (They’re worried about him getting hurt.)  Behind the Walled City is a secret dojo where a dangerous, long running tournament, a kumite, is about to be held.

Early on, we meet some of the international competitors quietly invited to participate, not through their mostly non-existent personalities, mind you, but by the objects they break.  There’s the defending champion, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), who can destroy big blocks of ice with his bare foot and elbow.  Some white guy who can obliterate pieces of wood with his foot and knee.  And some African guy who can leap onto a tree branch (not impressive with all the edits) and split open a coconut with a single chop (ok, that’s cool).

One of the few somewhat developed characters is Ray Jackson (a sometimes legitimately humourous Donald Gibb from Revenge Of The Nerds), a masochistic, scuzzball American who befriends Dux over a karate arcade game (which means they’ll never fight each other in the dojo) and is eager to add some scars to his face as badges of honour for surviving this ridiculousness.

For indeed, Bloodsport is all kinds of stupid.  At one point, Dux checks in with an old friend who is apparently dying of my favourite cinematic disease, the one that has no name.  You know he’s dying because he’s laying down.  And he’s old.  One goofy camera zoom leads to an unintentionally hilarious flashback where we learn that Dux was pressured by his dopey friends to break into the man’s house and steal his precious sword.  (The kid who plays him as a young teen is so bad I laughed at everything he said.  His dialogue sounds dubbed.)  Inevitably, Dux is the only one who gets caught.  The man’s son gives him a stiff kick to the gut.  (And yet, later on, he’s easily bullied at school.  Consistency!)

Instead of being reported to the cops, they make a deal.  Dux will be a punching bag for his son during his martial arts training.  But he also wants to learn.  Reluctantly, the man trains him as hard as Stu Hart broke in wrestlers in his famed dungeon, albeit with a lot more silliness.  (Breaking free from the splits while tied to a tree is supposed to accomplish what exactly?)  The man’s son hopes to honour him by entering that kumite in Hong Kong.  He never makes it because he dies.  And no, we don’t know why.  Guess he had the disease that has no name, too.

At any event, Dux is eventually given the sword he almost stole because he earned it and he convinces his grieving mentor to allow him to represent the family in the kumite.  (The officials won’t accept his entry until he breaks a brick (not the one at the top of the pile, the one on the bottom) with his bare hand.  No problem.)

It takes a full half hour before the first fight even starts, but by God, it is not compelling.  In fact, none of these overly choregraphed encounters are all that gruesome or memorable.  (At least pro wrestling is entertaining.)  Yes, there is blood but not a lot of brutality.  And the constant use of slow motion feels oh so pretentious and cheesy.  Not helping at all is Chong Li’s constantly bulging eyes which provoke much laughter, not terror.  Van Damme’s repetitive grunting is just as goofy.

You can pretty much figure out where everything is going.  Dux has to have some reason to want to knock out Chong Li beyond just winning the tournament, so the defending champion does a number on an overly cocky Jackson and that’s all the motivation he needs.  Well, that and the fact Li also kills his semi-final opponent.  Literally.

The kumite is spread out over three days which gives Dux enough time to romance a nosy reporter (Leah Ayres) who he rescues from another presumably (and badly) dubbed performer, an Arab combatant named Hossain with rape on his mind.  She complains that it’s impossible to get information about the tourney which is strange considering the sheer number of spectators who are allowed to attend and place bets without signing non-disclosure agreements.  Her lapsed ethics eventually allow her into the building undetected.  (Curiously, no one pays attention to her talking into her tiny tape recorder.)

One of the few joys of watching old movies like this is seeing famous faces before they became major stars.  Granted, Forest Whitaker was not completely unknown at the time (he had a memorable supporting role in Good Morning Vietnam the year before) but Bloodsport was out long before he firmly established his reputation with later films like The Crying Game, Panic Room and The Last King Of Scotland (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar).  How unfortunate, though, that he’s saddled with such a dumb character here.  (He plays one of Dux’ relentless military pursuers.  Gotta dig that giant tazer.)  Whitaker doesn’t embarrass himself, thankfully, a testament to his talent even when he’s playing someone so hopelessly inept & overruled.

Bloodsport is about as suspenseless as an action film can get.  There is no doubt how it will end.  It’s that underwhelming.  With the rise of MMA three decades later, its fight sequences today feel very dated, too noticeably staged and just flat out hokey.  I laughed far more often than I cringed.  (The brief details about the real Dux’s life as an undefeated fighter, displayed as freeze-frame graphics in the final shot, suggest a far more intriguing film.)

However, its artistic failure in no way cancels out Jean Claude Van Damme’s movie star appeal.  He’s long passed Gene Siskel’s simple test.  He always looks great in close-up.  But just imagine how much better he could’ve been his entire career if he exercised his right to remain silent.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 24, 2016
6:37 p.m.

Published in: on April 24, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Prince: An Appreciation

He was signed by Warner Bros. when he was 20.  But they lied to the world when they promoted him as an 18-year-old prodigy.  Flamboyant like Little Richard, a colourful showman like James Brown, and a devastating shredder like Jimi Hendrix, Prince Rogers Nelson further bridged the musical gaps between funk, soul and rock as he would go on to become one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of all time.

And now he’s dead. Recently sent to hospital for what was reportedly the flu (new reports claim he was suffering from “severe dehydration”), his 57-year-old body was found earlier today at his home in Minnesota.  It’s not clear yet what exactly happened.  Surely, it wasn’t influenza.

When I was a kid in the 80s, Prince was all over the Television and radio airwaves.  Not a year went by when he didn’t have either a new studio album, a new live album, a new movie, a new soundtrack to that movie or a new song and video out.  Looking back, you wonder if the man did anything besides create and play music.  He must’ve been a light sleeper.

After releasing a couple of soul albums in the late 70s, one ignored and one that went platinum thanks to his first big hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Prince’s first full-length critical breakthrough was 1980’s Dirty Mind.  Village Voice critic Robert Christgau famously noted in his exuberant rave of the LP, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

Prince never looked back after that.  The following year, he offered Controversy.  The superior single edit of the overlong, rather warped title cut intensified his already highly sexualized, religious fervor as he addresses rumours of his sexual identity.  (He was often presumed to be gay because of his fondness for falsetto vocals and seemingly feminine presentation.  He wasn’t.)  The single edit remains one of his greatest songs.

By 1982, after building a strong black following, he finally started appealing to white kids thanks to his highly acclaimed double album, 1999, which spawned numerous smash hits like Little Red Corvette, Delirious and of course, the political title song.   (Like David Bowie’s Fantastic Voyage, it warned of the still real danger of a nuclear holocaust.)  Speaking of the latter, every verse was originally supposed to be harmonized with members of The Revolution, his second backing band.  (The Time preceded them.)  But Prince decided to individualize the vocals so that each harmony part would get a line of its own to sing which made all the difference.  The apolocalyptic 1999 would go on to become one of his most enduring musical signatures.

In 1984, Prince was ready for the big screen as he unveiled Purple Rain, his only fictional film to receive praise.  (Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge did not fare as well.  The concert picture, Sign O’ The Times, however, was critically acclaimed.  It played on MuchMusic for years after its 1987 theatrical run.)  The fantastic soundtrack became his Thriller, his most popular collection of recordings, some of which were captured live.  (It has sold about 15 million copies in North America alone.)  Just before the album’s unveiling, Prince felt it lacked an anthem, so he quickly put together a new song that would feature his best guitar solos, most especially the one that ends the track.  Long before he became a Jehovah’s Witness, Let’s Go Crazy cheekily addresses The Rapture without being annoyingly overt (unlike the full version of Controversy which directly references The Lord’s Prayer).  The result was Prince’s second number one single.  (When Doves Cry, which also features his first-rate guitar playing, was his first.)

The Purple Rain soundtrack, the first one that gave credit to The Revolution, was loaded with other memorable songs like the beautifully epic title track (which peaked at number 2), I Would Die 4 U and the lascivious Darling Nikki which bothered Tipper Gore so much it ended up on the Filthy Fifteen list.  Foo Fighters later covered it in 2002 and it became a minor alt-rock radio hit despite being a B-Side.  (As a thank you, during his Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, Prince covered their 2005 single, Best Of You.)  In 1985, the soundtrack would win the Best Original Song Score Oscar and would be nominated for the Album Of The Year Grammy.

For the rest of the 80s, Prince would continue to offer quirky, mass appeal singles:  the anti-drug Pop Life, Rasberry Beret, Kiss (another number one later covered by Tom Jones & The Art Of Noise), I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, U Got The Look (with Sheena Easton) and the funky Alphabet St.  In 1987, the same year he presented Sign O’ The Times, Prince produced his darkest collection of songs.  Growing fascinated with the burgeoning hip hop movement, The Black Album was going to be his Christmas release.  Warner Bros. balked at putting out another Prince album so quickly after the multi-platinum double release of Sign O’ The Times.  But, in the end, he second-guessed himself.  Despite the production of a small number of vinyl copies (the survivors of which became very valuable collector’s items fetching thousands of dollars each), The Black Album would be cancelled.  It would go on to become one of the most bootlegged lost albums over the next 7 years.

Lovesexy would take its place in 1988.  (The Alphabet St. video urged fans to not buy The Black Album bootlegs.)  It included a rerecorded version of When 2 R In Love, the only Black Album track to see official release at the time.

With the hope of finally taking a break, Warner instead convinced him to do another soundtrack, this one for a new Tim Burton film.  Red hot after the overrated Beetlejuice, he directed Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger and Jack Nicholson in Batman, the biggest hit of 1989.  Prince’s stellar soundtrack, which I originally had on tape but is now very hard to find on CD (I’ve managed to locate three used copies in recent years, though, two of which I bought for a buck apiece), ended the decade with an emphatic exclamation point.  Batdance, an exhilarating, film dialogue-heavy montage of many of the soundtrack’s songs (including non-album B-Side 200 Balloons) and featuring yet another classic rip roaring solo, would also hit number one.  Another single, Scandalous!, didn’t fare nearly as well chart-wise but it is a lovely ballad nonetheless, another vivid showcase for his trademark falsetto.  Curiously, the video for Partyman would feature the full 7-minute version whereas the soundtrack only has the 4-minute single edit.

After Graffiti Bridge flopped in 1990 (Thieves In The Temple did crack the Top 10, however), Prince rebounded with his new backing band, The New Power Generation, in 1991 with Diamonds & Pearls.  The orgasmic Cream would be his final number one smash.  The pretty title cut would peak in the Top 5.

In 1992, Prince signed a lucrative multi-album deal with Warner, his longtime label.  He would immediately regret it.  Despite learning about copyright law in high school, Prince belatedly realized he didn’t own any of his masters.  His next album that year (Prince logo.svg) would become his new identity in 1993 (along with The Artist and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), an unpronounceable symbol (referred to as the Love Symbol) that references both sexes.  (To be fair, it inspired cool guitar and stage designs.)  Prince logo.svg featured his last great single for Warner, the jazz-inflected Sexy M.F., one of the rare times he rapped on record.

After announcing his new identity, which baffled the music world and gave comedians plenty of material, Prince decided to get out of his contract by offering a succession of albums within a three-year period which deeply annoyed Warner.  They hated the idea of flooding the marketplace because it meant lower profits.

Prince didn’t care if they sold or not.  He just wanted out.  Some of the music he released during this period had been languishing in the vaults for years including The Black Album which finally surfaced officially in November 1994 but with a catch.  It would only be on sale for 2 months before being supposedly pulled from record shops in late January 1995.  (5 years after its release I still managed to find a new copy for 6 bucks.  I’ve seen at least one used copy available for 20 but that was a while ago.)

Just a few months before that, Prince released the acclaimed Come which finally corrected a longstanding error.  The cover revealed he had in fact been born in 1958, not 1960 as Warner had falsely promoted for years.

During a memorable September 1993 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, Prince performed a track from The Gold Experience, an album that wouldn’t be available until 1995.  (I would love to own the damn thing on CD but good luck finding it today.)  The word “SLAVE” was written on his cheek, his way of protesting what he saw as an unfair arrangement with Warner.  Gold Experience included The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, another falsetto ballad that hit the Top 5 in 1994 and was previously issued on an EP that year, the Top 20 hit I Hate U and P Control, yet another hooky ode to the vagina.

After the releases of the unloved Chaos & Disorder and the Girl 6 soundtrack (curiously released under his old name) in 1996, Prince released his first post-Warner collection, the three-hour Emancipation, which featured his last Top 40 hits, a cover of The Stylistics’ Betcha By Golly Wow! and The Holy River.  Instead of signing with another major, he starting shipping CDs of his music over the Internet (they would eventually surface in stores not always with the same track listings, though) including Crystal Ball (available in three, four and five-disc incarnations) which captured numerous outtakes from past album sessions for a number of scrapped projects including a few that featured his child-like alter ego Camille (not including previously released rejects like non-album B-sides Shockadelica and the catchy Feel U Up which could’ve been a hit like U Got The Look, all of which are on The Hits/The B-Sides).

Meanwhile, Warner would continue to occasionally release new Prince material leftover in their vaults (one such collection was actually called The Vault) plus a number of hits packages, the best of which remains The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993.  It features Nothing Compares 2 U (which Sinead O’Connor famously covered in 1990) and the original version of I Feel For You (a big hit for post-Rufus Chaka Khan in 1984).   I guess he never recorded Manic Monday, the hit song he wrote for The Bangles.

Although the two discs of hits were also available as individual releases (The Hits 1 and The Hits 2), the 20 non-album B-Sides were exclusive to the three-disc set.  I was personally very lucky to finally nab a new copy at HMV just a few years ago.  It’s another hard-to-find release, but even when you do spot it, it’s not always affordable.  (I once saw a used copy that cost 30 bucks.  New ones can run as much as 60 to 70.  My copy was 10 but free with a gift card.)

In 2000, by this point long past his commercial and artistic prime, Prince belatedly announced he was reverting back to his birth name, although he would continue to incorporate his highly mocked symbol in his live shows.  No longer a Top 40 fixture, he would however have one last multi-platinum hurrah in 2004.  (To be fair, he would also have two final Gold albums in 2006 & 2009.)  Musicology received his best reviews in years and thanks to a clever promotion (it was given away with concert tickets), it charted well.  His performance with Beyonce at the Grammys that same year inspired a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch.

In the final 12 years of his life, Prince never stopped creating and performing, although he would considerably dial down the lust in his lyrics because of his new found religion.  He continued to churn out new records on an annual basis and he remained a popular concert attraction.  (He had just played a couple of shows in Toronto a few weeks ago.  His last concert, part of his Paisley Park After Dark series at his home estate, happened over the weekend.)

His sudden death comes just three months after the shocking demise of David Bowie.  Like the creator of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, Prince was a major influence on subsequent generations of performers, both black and white, trans, gay and straight.  His sexually charged lyrics pushed the boundaries of acceptability way more than Madonna ever could. (There’s no way she could’ve gotten away with writing songs like Jack U Off, Head and Scarlet Pussy.)

Prince’s often horny songs were ubiquitous and brilliantly accessible to a mass audience, never more so than in the 80s and early 90s.  For someone so weird, soft-spoken and distant (he rarely gave interviews), he had surprisingly global appeal.  He was unusual enough to excite young audiences thirsting for something unique.  And yet his decision to sing more often than not in an inoffensive high register (a huge risk that could’ve resulted in unintentional laughter, although he did come close to becoming a self-parody at times) and his remarkable gift for well-crafted arrangements allowed him to win over more conservative pop traditionalists.  There’s no denying he had flat out, incredible musicianship.  He was as much as master of the electric six-string as more celebrated axmen like Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck.

But he could also be prickly.  Owners of Prince fan sites and bootleg distributors of his long coveted and voluminous unreleased recordings often felt his wrath in the form of lawsuits and public criticism.  A unrepentant control freak, he was not pro-Napster.  (He also didn’t want any of his songs parodied by Weird Al Yankovic who gave up asking for permission after a while.)  And although he would eventually return to work within the major label system, he wisely avoided traditional, longterm deals.  He would continue to offer new material online right up until last year.

And now he’s gone.  My reaction to his death is curiously more subdued than Bowie’s.  I hadn’t heard a Prince album since Musicology.  (The library copy I once borrowed I unfortunately broke by accident.  Not a good way to spend 20 bucks.)  And while I greatly admire many of his singles and especially his Batman & Purple Rain soundtracks, I have never felt the need to own everything he did.  On the contrary, I never stopped listening to Bowie.  (I’m loving Blackstar at the moment, his last release.)  In the last several years, I made it a point to add as many of his CDs to my collection that I could find for as little money as possible with a few more still to seek out.  With the exception of that elusive Gold Experience, on the other hand, I have all the Prince I need.

In the days and weeks to come we will surely learn more about his sudden death, as mysterious and odd as the man himself.  But for those grieving for the early end of another 80s icon, there is the warm comfort of the vast legacy he leaves behind.  Plus, now that the stern gatekeeper of so many unheard goodies is no more, how soon before that enormous trove of material long buried from the prying eyes and curious ears of a soon-to-be insatiable public begins to be unearthed?

More than 45 years after the death of Jimi Hendrix, we’re still getting new albums from him.  Prince is about to give him some much needed competition.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, April 21, 2016
7:28 p.m.

CORRECTIONS:  Only Prince’s debut release was ignored.  His second album went platinum and spawned his first Top 40 hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover.  It was 2000, not 1999, when Prince announced he was Prince again.  P Control from The Gold Experience was wrongly listed as P Patrol.  Musicology was his last “multi-platinum” success but by no means his last certified album.  He would acquire two more Gold records by the end of The Aughts.  And sadly, having rewatched the Controversy video a couple of times today, I realize that Prince isn’t wearing his infamous assless chaps, just leggings and bikini underwear.  All of these corrections have since been incorporated into the original piece.  I regret all the errors.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 24, 2016
9:45 p.m.

Published in: on April 21, 2016 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Last American Virgin

In The Last American Virgin, deceptive teenage boys are walking, stalking hard-ons and teenage girls are their confused, dimwitted prey.  Boundaries are not only confusingly fluid, they’re never enforced.  Mutual enthusiasm is rare.  For a film about sex, it’s awfully joyless and disturbing.  Released in the summer of 1982, this dangerous crapfest is as anti-feminist as it gets.

Early on, we meet Gary, a delivery boy for The Pink Pizza, a crude vagina joke if ever there was one.  He’s fallen instantly for new student, Karen, a cute, curly-haired brunette.  When he first sees her in a popular teen eatery, he does that thing all awkward, lonely, lovestruck guys do.  He stares at her a little too long.

Later, through one of his friends, he finds her address.  One morning, before she leaves for school, he drives by in the Pink Pizzamobile, gets out and deflates one of her bike tires.  That way, she’ll have to ride in his car with him instead.  Creepy.  During the ride to class, he does another annoying thing by pretending to not correctly hear her name so she has to repeat it again and again.  His game is so wack.

After being turned down for a date with her (because she’s busy), Gary goes to a party and becomes crestfallen when he spots his douchey horndog friend Rick dancing with her.  Feeling a deep sense of territorial entitlement but not nearly brave enough to air his deeply felt grievances, he proceeds to get miserably drunk on Jack Daniels.  Then, he’s asked to leave.  And yes, he drives home drunk in the Pizzamobile.  (He’s lucky he doesn’t kill anybody.)  He further embarrasses himself in front of his family & their small group of guests by hitting on one of his mom’s friends and dropping a tray of drinking glasses.

When he’s not quietly moping, Gary joins Rick & their mutual friend Big Apple (a portly fellow really named David who locates Karen’s house) on gross sexual misadventures.  Shortly after meeting Karen, a reluctant Gary is talked into entertaining three girls (picked up at that same popular eatery by David) at his parents’ place under the pretense that they’re throwing a drug-filled house party.  (They’re only invited because they’re allegedly “easy lays”.  Charming.)  The girls make it clear they’re not interested in sex, just the drugs.  In the film’s only funny scene, the lines of “Colombian cocaine” the boys offer is really just Sweet ‘N Low.  The girls are too dumb to know the difference.

They’re also easily coerced sexually which is uncomfortable to watch.  Despite saying stop numerous times while dancing to some vinyl, Rick’s date doesn’t actually end their endless make out session, especially when it moves over to the living room couch.  Shortly thereafter, when they have sex in one of the bedrooms she notes in the middle of it she’s not on the pill.  “Me, neither” is the callous reply.  Again, nothing stops.

Big Apple’s date, the one who wanted the boys to keep their hands to themselves or they wouldn’t come to Gary’s house, is at first appalled when he mauls her in a different bedroom.  (She thankfully makes him climb off of her in the middle of a refuted kiss.)  Then, after saying she doesn’t want him to remove her blouse, she suddenly urges David to go outside, take off his clothes while counting to 100, then come back when he will discover that she will be naked, too.  What?

Meanwhile, Gary is stuck with Millie, a bespectacled sourpuss who says “I don’t care” a lot yet still allows him to remove her shirt despite showing not the slightest bit of sexual interest.  (She’d rather eat from that bowl of potato chips.)  And then Gary’s parents come home just as he attempts to cut her stubborn bra strap while simultaneously putting her in what looks like a reverse chinlock.  She has absolutely no reaction to this as she continues to munch away.

During one of his Pink Pizza deliveries, Gary meets Carmella, an oversexed Spanish woman who later services Rick & David during a return trip despite having a sailor boyfriend named Paco who picks the wrong time to pay her a visit.  It must be said she is the only enthusiastic female in the movie, but of course this is seen as peculiar.  She’s a “nympho”, after all, as an impolite David loudly declares.  (It wouldn’t be an 80s sex comedy without all that harmful “slut” shaming.  She’s not the only recipient of such antiquated thinking.)  An impatient redheaded prostitute they encounter is far more irritable and, as it turns out, diseased.  She’s so icky Gary becomes sick to his stomach after he gets his 30 dollars worth.  And no, sitting in a chlorinated pool for many hours doesn’t cure the crabs, as these sexist idiots belatedly discover.

Completely oblivious to all of this is sweet, dopey Karen who makes the mistake of having sex with the sleazy, philandering Rick near the high school football field.  Like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, she pays the price for not using contraception.  Rick soon blows her off rather cruelly and manipulative Gary finds his opening.

Unfortunately, he’s very controlling as he urges the meek Karen to get it together and not blab about her situation.  (He actually looks for her at the football field like the insecure creep that he is.)  Incredibly, after selling his stereo and borrowing some money from his Pink Pizza boss, Gary pays for her $250 abortion, a word that is never actually said out loud.  Clearly expecting to be rewarded with her love, especially after declaring his own to her days after the procedure (she gives him a hug and a kiss after thanking him for being a good “friend”), he gets quite the rude awakening in the final scene which is supposed to be heartbreaking but is absolutely hilarious.  Even funnier is seeing this jerk driving with tears streaming down his face as the end titles begin to run.

This point can’t be stressed enough.  Gary’s “nice guy” act is so transparently phony, even naïve Karen, who gets knocked up by a different asshole and very clearly has low self-esteem, doesn’t fall for it.  (Don’t believe her crocodile tears for one second.  She never really wanted him.)  In one respect, the ending is a twisted form of justice.  In another, it’s a horrendously self-inflicted punishment on a confused kid who has zero clue what she’s doing.  Considering all her pitiful options, she’s better off being celibate, quite frankly.

Speaking of punishment, in place of actual emotion, The Last American Virgin bombards us with repeated snippets of overly obvious early 80s pop ballads like REO Speedwagon’s Keep On Lovin’ You and Journey’s treacly Open Arms not to mention way too much Lionel Richie (via The Commodores).  We care so little for these screwed up characters, almost none of whom are sympathetic (including the pervy, big-dicked nerd who looks like Fred Armisen), these garbage retro hits make us hate them even more.

While it’s always delightful to hear classic tunes from The Police, The Waitresses, Devo and The Cars on any soundtrack, they belong in a better movie.  Ditto U2’s I Will Follow which is heard during the abortion sequence.  In this context, Bono’s lyrics now mirror the domineering toxic masculinity of Gary as Karen passively gives him the reins to her own uterus.  It’s an ugly juxtaposition.

It’s hard to feel too sorry for him when he attracts the genuine interest of Karen’s cute, bespectacled, bubble gum-loving friend Rose.  (He even makes out with her in the front seat of a car.)  But Gary wants the unattainable, the so-called dream girl that seems so close, yet is completely out of reach.  And he’s not good at being vulnerable, not until it’s too late.  By then, he doesn’t recognize the young girl he’s long fancied is a seriously flawed human being who can’t possibly live up to his overwrought imagination.

The boys in The Last American Virgin don’t see girls as their equals.  They see them as reluctant play-things who only submit to aggression and chicanery, instead of consenting through honest, heartfelt connection.  The girls are not autonomous, eager sexual beings but rather reluctant, conflicted receptacles who aren’t allowed to enjoy physical intimacy on their own terms.  They only exist to please immature boys and not entirely willingly.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
6:55 p.m.

Published in: on April 20, 2016 at 6:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bending The Rules

I don’t understand WWE Studios’ business plan.  Dropping most of their movies in just a few theatres for a few weeks, then immediately dumping them on home video shortly thereafter has not been a sound strategy, especially when you realize the poor quality and limited commercial appeal of many of these releases.

Consider Bending The Rules.  Heavily promoted in early 2012 on WWE’s weekly prime-time wrestling shows, it’s a failed vehicle for former world champion Edge, a painfully inept formula buddy comedy with no laughs and a nonsensical crime story.  It is the second worst film WWE has ever released.  (No One Lives is holding tight at number one.)

In the film he plays Nick Blades, a charmless, thoroughly corrupt Louisiana cop who dresses more like a tourist than an officer of the law.  He’s so blasé about not following the rules that he walks into court wearing his usual Hawaiian shirt and shorts (without being reprimanded by the judge) just before Assistant DA Theo Gold (a thoroughly miscast Jamie Kennedy) delivers his closing argument against him during a trial.  (Like this would ever happen in real life.)  Blades is more interested in a newspaper he just confiscated from a running perp he tripped out on the streets of New Orleans than anything Gold has to say.  (The jury ends up being deadlocked and Blades temporarily gets off the hook.)

Gold is having a particularly bad birthday.  Besides losing the case against Blades, he gets dumped by his materialistic wife of 15 years, he gets passed over for a promotion, his beautiful 1956 red Studebaker goes missing (he wrongly thinks it’s been stolen), his nostalgic, retired movie star mom (Jessica Walter) keeps bothering him about his dad’s supposed infidelities, and at night, he gets pulled over by cops who proceed to record him getting tazed.  (They later laugh as they watch their self-made torture video in their precinct.  Fucking sadists.)

When Gold’s senile, paranoid dad (Peter Baker Hall) locks himself in a bedroom with a gun in the middle of a delusional state (he keeps seeing his dead brother), the frustrated attorney finds Blades already there in his parents’ home comforting his mom promising to get to the bottom of her husband’s non-existent affairs.  (Blades is supposed to be on administrative leave because of the corruption charges (Internal Affairs is still investigating) and could use that 200 bucks she’s offered.)  They soon team up to look for his prized Studebaker (since the police who collectively hate his guts can’t be bothered) while Blades uncovers a preposterous murder scheme involving that confiscated newspaper and a notorious death row inmate with the ridiculous last name of Van Bieber.

Curiously unexplained is why he’s on death row in the first place (I presume it’s because he committed capital murder but no victim is ever mentioned) and how he’s able to relay coded newspaper messages to the outside world from a maximum security facility completely undetected by the authorities.  (The guy Blades steals the newspaper from is mysteriously released from police custody before there’s a chance for interrogation.  But finding out who allowed this to happen leads to more confusion.)  All we know about Van Bieber is that he’s part of some notorious gang and he wants his loyal associates to off some people, mainly FBI informants and Gold, the prosecutor who got him convicted.  Shouldn’t he have had this taken care of before he was found guilty?  Some criminal mastermind.

It’s hard to warrant any affection for either Gold or Blades.  The former, a soon-to-be-divorced dad of two, supports the death penalty and is generally very annoying while the latter, a divorced dad of one, openly admits to skimming from cash forfeitures (to support his estranged daughter he barely sees) and assaulting without apology.  (He appears allergic to warrants and orders from his cranky superior.  Not that he’s ever really punished for his numerous transgressions.)  He also refers to a black, ski-masked gunman as an “ape”.  Inevitably, they hate each other for much of the film until the very end when all is resolved.  Does this change of heart mean Gold will not re-try Blades on corruption charges?  What do you think?

Whenever you see a classic car in a film, the odds of it getting absolutely destroyed are astronomically high, so it’s no surprise what horrifying fate awaits that glorious Studebaker, an apt metaphor for any poor sap who watches this car wreck of a comedy.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
3:22 a.m.

Published in: on April 20, 2016 at 3:22 am  Leave a Comment  

No One Lives

Most bad horror movies usually have something of a coherent story, no matter how simplistic or derivative.  There’s usually a clear villain with a specific motive, a bunch of archetypical victims they ultimately knock off and the final girl who almost always survives the nightmare after vanquishing the threat.

The violently stupid No One Lives is not your typically bad horror movie.  In fact, I defy anyone to make sense of it or even endure its utter unpleasantness.

A young American college student (British actress Adelaide Clemens) survives a sorority massacre and disappears.  We first see her in a forest running away barefoot and in her underwear screaming like a maniac.  She doesn’t get very far, thanks to getting caught in a trap.  Before being recaptured she manages to carve out “Emma Alive” on a tree which gives the authorities and her worried family hope.

Watching a TV news update of the story in a cheap motel room is a couple in crisis.  The man (Luke Evans) apparently has been unfaithful to his girlfriend (Laura Ramsay).  She has a scar on her belly.  While kissing it, he apologizes “for everything” to which she points out his complete lack of emotion.  She openly ponders why he can’t be normal.  Two big red flags.  You start to wonder why she is with him in the first place.  Neither sounds remotely enthusiastic about being in this relationship (and in this movie, for that matter).  A little later on, we find out the source of their “tension”.  Unlike me at the time, you’ve probably already figured it out.

Meanwhile, the dumbest band of house thieves run into an unexpected snag during a daytime heist.  The family that was supposed to be on vacation while their all valuable possessions are being cleared out are suddenly arriving home early.  One of the thieves (Derek Magyar) defies his boss (Lee Tergesen) by shooting the dad, the mom and their teenage son to death.  (Boss man wanted to talk to them first.  Was he planning to pretend on being a repo guy?  Like that’s credible.)  All they really had to do was pack up whatever they already managed to steal and just drive away in time, but no, that would make too much sense.

They eventually drive to Helen’s Steakhouse where the couple in crisis just happen to be dining.  This is the kind of place that only exists in the movies.  The only patrons are these characters.  You wonder how they stay open the rest of the time.  The murderous thief starts harassing the couple which, as it turns out, is his second mistake.  Mistake number three involves kidnapping them and stealing their car.

Former WWE wrestler Brodus Clay is assigned the ugly task of torturing them but he thankfully doesn’t get very far.  In fact, the mysterious man’s girlfriend does his job for him.  Inexplicably, she suddenly decides to put her neck right through his knife.  That’s one way to get out of a terrible movie.  Her suddenly distraught boyfriend (His first emotion!  Yay!) takes advantage of a distracted Clay to prepare for his first kill since the college massacre.  Whoops.  Yep, that’s right.  He’s the missing college student’s captor as the murderous thief discovers while simultaneously rooting through the couple’s not so valuable car belongings.  I was too bored and irritated to guess this ahead of time.

Now being held captive by these idiotic thieves, the college student warns them about what’s to come.  Do they listen?  Of course not.  In one of the most ridiculous scenes I’ve ever seen, after two of the thieves go to check on Clay (who isn’t responding to their calls) and move his enormous dead body to an abandoned barn, all of a sudden it comes to life.  The mysterious man, now completely drenched in Clay’s blood, actually hid inside it, completely undetected, an even less believable moment than him eliminating the massive Funkasaurus in the first place.

From there, things get even dumber.  One of the thieves recognizes the college student from a tabloid TV show where we learn her family has offered a 2 million dollar reward for her safe return.  Now, I don’t know about you, but if it was me I would do everything in my power to protect this young woman from danger.  And I would start by getting the hell out of there immediately.  What do these embarrassing imbeciles do?  They dick around too much, curse at each other constantly (there’s even an impromptu fight) and routinely threaten the college student.  The boss orders her killed if she tries to flee.  How are you supposed to collect the reward if she’s dead, stupid?

The college student doesn’t have much choice, anyway.  Her dull, emotionless, relentless captor is out there.  She seems to be the only one who can see him lingering rather openly outside their makeshift hideout.  (He’s an appallingly lame anti-hero in so many ways.)  As the body count quickly climbs (the murder scenes are extremely gruesome), eventually the surviving thieves are on the run with the poor college student, the object of her captive’s deep affections.

Oh yes.  I forgot to mention that the mysterious man of the aforementioned couple in crisis has some kind of weird fixation on her that’s never ever properly explained.  (She has scars, too, like the dead, jealous girlfriend.)  In a very silly flashback, he tests her “loyalty”.  After giving her a quick tutorial on how to stop a serious wound from bleeding profusely, he proceeds to slice his neck.  Instead of making a run for it, she stops the bleeding altogether.  (Beforehand, he dusts off the old “if I die, you die” routine to keep her in line.)  Now back to his indifferent self again, he casually points out that she was never actually locked up in this room.  She could’ve walked out at any time and left him to croak.  She saved him because she wanted to, he claims with a straight face.  Ain’t love by coercion grand?

By the time we reach the end of this suspenseless, blood-soaked, low-budget shitberg, we’re supposed to care about one sociopath doing battle with another as the college student sticks around to watch the hard to follow fight choreography instead of getting the fuck out of there.  No, she can’t let mysterious thief take out her captor.  That’s her job, goddamnit!  Oh, for fuck sakes.

I haven’t seen every WWE Studios film production, only a handful or so as of this writing, but No One Lives is the worst one by far.  Even the dreadful See No Evil with Kane isn’t as off-putting as this insulting garbage.  And it was quite off-putting in its own right.  (The Call is the closest the company has ever come to making a good one but I can’t recommend it either despite having some affection for it.)

The dialogue is terrible.  When it’s not overwritten and clunky, it’s soulless and forgettable.  The wooden, disjointed performances are even worse.  There are no scares, just horrifically bloody murders that feel more at home in a snuff film locked up in the evidence room of a police precinct.

There is no point.  There are no characters to care about.  There is nothing.

Dumped into a few theatres in the Spring of 2013 before its immediate home video release (I’m amazed it came out at all), No One Lives will not be remembered as a classic, as its pretentiously deluded filmmakers are hoping.  Instead, it’ll serve as a welcome reminder that WWE Studios should stop making bad horror movies forever more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 10, 2016
3:03 p.m.

Published in: on April 10, 2016 at 3:03 pm  Comments (1)  

When Plan “A” Goes Awry: 5 Times WWE Got Lucky With Plan “B” Storylines

In the world of professional wrestling, it all comes down to storylines.  Who’s the hero?  Who’s the villain?  And what are they fighting each other for?

Sounds simple enough.  But to paraphrase a famous poem, even the best laid storylines can go awry.

Wrestlers get hurt unexpectedly, sidelining them for months.  Sometimes they miss shows.  Sometimes they get suspended or fired.  And sometimes the bookers make last-minute changes based on any number of other factors not always within their control like the audience’s lack of enthusiasm.

For every WWE program that seemingly goes exactly as planned (CM Punk/John Cena, Randy Savage/Ricky Steamboat) or flat-out stiffs (Triple H/Kane during the Attitude Era, Red Rooster/Brooklyn Brawler), there are the ones that never happen at all (Bret Hart/Hulk Hogan, Daniel Bryan/The Undertaker).

Then, there are the happy accidents, the back-up programs that were implemented because the real plans fell apart.  These Plan Bs, if you will, sometimes work out so well that you wonder why they weren’t the original storylines to begin with.  In fact, had they not taken place, the history of WWE would be very different.

Here are five notable examples:

1. “The Natural” Butch Reed misses a TV taping (June 2, 1987).

Shortly after winning the InterContinental title from Randy Savage at WrestleMania III, Ricky Steamboat asked WWF boss Vince McMahon for some time off.  McMahon would only allow it if The Dragon dropped the belt.  After a series of cage matches with Savage on the house show circuit, a reluctant and disappointed Steamboat ultimately agreed to the demand.

The plan called for him to lose the strap to Butch Reed during a WWF Superstars taping on June 2, 1987.  However, there was a big problem.  Reed never showed up.

Then-WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan made a suggestion.  Why not use his friend Wayne Ferris as a replacement?

Ferris arrived in the company in the fall of 1986.  Originally booked as a Hogan-supporting babyface, he was floundering.  Fans immediately rejected him.  Things started to turn around for the Elvis impersonator when he asked for a vote of confidence (which he didn’t get) and hired “Colonel” Jimmy Hart as his manager.  Now sounding delusional about having the fans on his side (he never acknowledged their boos), he started to generate heat, especially after whacking Jake Roberts in the head with a real guitar on the set of his interview segment, The Snake Pit.

At WrestleMania III, he got a cheap pinfall victory over The Snake by holding one of the ring ropes.  A similar finish would be used in his IC title match with Steamboat.

Rightly considered an unexpected upset at the time, little did anyone realize how significant this title change would become.  Ferris, billed as The Honky Tonk Man, would start declaring himself the greatest InterContinental Champion of all time, a catchphrase he would repeat in pretty much every promo he would go on to cut.  This greatly offended Savage who would spent the rest of 1987 and early 1988 unsuccessfully challenging him for the belt.

Savage was supposed to win the title for the second time at some point but Ferris refused to put him over.  That meant a change of plans for WrestleMania IV.  Originally, Ted DiBiase was going to win the World title tournament.  Savage, with an assist from Hogan, would pin The Million Dollar Man instead.

Ferris would move on to feud with Brutis Beefcake, the man he was supposed to drop the title to at the first SummerSlam in August 1988.  But Beefcake was ultimately replaced by an unbilled Ultimate Warrior who would squash Ferris in less than a minute.

Because Butch Reed failed to show up for work that June afternoon in 1987, The Honky Tonk Man became the longest reigning IC Champion of all time and played a major role in the formation of the Megapowers.

2. Triple H gets punished for the MSG Curtain Call (1996)

It was a longstanding, unwritten rule in pro wrestling:  no matter what, don’t break character when you’re performing.  But on May 19, 1996, at the end of a house show in New York’s Madison Square Garden, it was openly broken.

In the early 90s, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had found great success in the WWF as Diesel and Razor Ramon.  But when rival company WCW guaranteed them more money in secure contracts, the lure proved too strong to resist.  After wrestling their final WWF matches at the MSG show, along with their real-life pals Triple H and Shawn Michaels, they climbed into the ring, embraced and raised each other’s arms to the delight of the sold-out audience.

At first, this wasn’t seen as a big deal.  But gradually, over time, there was internal grumbling.  And someone needed to be punished.

Nash and Hall had already left.  As for The Heartbreak Kid, he was a main eventer the company couldn’t afford to lose, even on a temporary basis.  That left relative newbie Hunter Hearst Helmsley.  He would spend the next year or so losing more often than winning.

The timing sucked because Helmsley was going to be pushed as the 1996 King Of The Ring.  Instead, he put over a past-his-prime Jake Roberts in the first round.  The Snake would make it all the way to the finals where he would square off against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Helmsley’s replacement.

After finishing off Roberts with the Stone Cold Stunner, Austin would do a post-match interview with Dok Hendrix.  As Roberts was helped to the back by some referees, The Texas Rattlesnake would cut the promo of his life as he famously bragged, “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!”  Although a heel at the time, in the aftermath of WrestleMania 13 the following year, Austin would go on to become one of the most unlikely babyfaces in WWE history, drawing huge money wherever he performed and being pushed for the world title on multiple occasions.

As for Triple H, he would be pushed as the 1997 King Of The Ring and eventually go on to become a 14-time WWE World Champion.

3. Edge unexpectedly retires, vacating the World Heavyweight Championship (April 2011)

Shortly after retaining his World Heavyweight Championship against Royal Rumble winner Alberto Del Rio in the opening match of WrestleMania 27, The Rated R Superstar shocked the wrestling world by suddenly announcing his retirement.  Due to persistent neck issues and the serious risk of doing further, permanent damage, he ended his career and then officially vacated the WHC.

This put the WWE bookers in a bind.  Edge was supposed to have a ladder match with Del Rio at the next pay-per-view, Extreme Rules.  But with Edge no longer allowed to work, who would face the Mexican Aristocrat for the title instead?

In the end, it would be Edge’s lifelong pal Christian.  Thanks to a last-minute assist from Edge, Captain Charisma would climb the ladder and snag the belt.  Two days later, the babyface champion would drop the title during a Smackdown taping to Randy Orton which set up a series of entertaining rematches, more title changes and a heel turn.  Three years later, Christian quietly retired himself.

4. The Rock gets seriously injured during WrestleMania 29 (April 7, 2013)

In 2011, The Rock was announced as the host of WrestleMania 27.  During the main event, which originally ended in a double countout, he ordered the WWE title match between The Miz and John Cena to continue.  After rock bottoming the challenger, The Miz retained.  The very next night on Raw, Cena and Rock agreed to have a match at WrestleMania 28, giving themselves a full year to hype the encounter.  Rock got the victory.

At the 2013 Royal Rumble, The Rock defeated CM Punk to become WWE Champion.  Cena won the Royal Rumble match to get a title shot at WrestleMania 29.

During the match, Rock got seriously hurt.  (Good thing Cena was scheduled to win back the strap.)  Unfortunately, this affected The Rock’s next program.

On the April 8th edition of Raw, Rock was supposed to be attacked by Brock Lesnar.  But because of his injury, he was instead sent to the hospital for successful emergency surgery.  The Lesnar assault was supposed to begin yet another year-long build to WrestleMania.  But with Rock hurt and eventually back to making movies, this left Lesnar without a dance partner.

Enter The Undertaker.  Although he reportedly requested a match with Daniel Bryan, The Dead Man was ultimately booked to face The Beast Incarnate at WrestleMania 30.  By this point, The Streak was still intact.  Taker had won 21 straight matches at the event.  There wasn’t much widespread expectation it was in any serious danger, despite the red flag promos of Lesnar’s advocate Paul Heyman and a new T-shirt with the slogan, “Eat. Sleep. Conquer The Streak.”

In what was one of the most closely guarded secrets in professional wrestling history, not even the referee in the match knew what the finish was.  After three F5s, Lesnar gave The Phenom his first and only WrestleMania loss.  If The Rock hadn’t gotten that injury against John Cena in 2013, would someone besides Lesnar been booked to break The Streak in 2014?  We’ll never know.

5. A burned-out CM Punk walks away from the WWE after the Royal Rumble (2014)

The Straight Edge Superstar had accomplished a lot in WWE.  Winning Money In The Bank twice.  Becoming InterContinental Champion, a co-holder of the tag titles, and even a multiple-time World Champion.  But there was one goal on his list he had yet to tick off:  main-eventing WrestleMania.

The closest he ever came was WrestleMania 28, when he successfully defended the WWE title against Chris Jericho in the second-to-last match of the night.  (Rock/Cena headlined the event.)

After losing to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 29, Punk requested some time off to heal from injuries, a sabbatical that lasted about two and a half months.  At the end of 2013, there was a segment on Raw to hype the John Cena/Randy Orton world title unification match at TLC.  At some point, with a whole bunch of former world champions in the ring, Punk got into it with former rival Triple H.  It was no accident.  According to reports later on, the WWE had big plans for him that potentially could’ve gotten him that long elusive WrestleMania main event booking.

While feuding with Corporate Kane, Punk became entrant #1 in the 2014 Royal Rumble and lasted almost the entire match before being tossed from the ring by an already eliminated Kane himself.  Shortly thereafter, once again feeling like shit, Punk told the company he was temporarily walking away to recover.

But this meant he wouldn’t be facing Triple H for the first time in 3 years at the Granddaddy Of Them All.  Nor would it mean being booked for the WWE championship match in the main event.  On his way out the door, Punk suggested his replacement for both matches:  old Ring of Honor pal Daniel Bryan.

By this point, Bryan was the most popular babyface in the company.  Already a three-time World Champion, he never had longer than a three-month reign.  (He had longer title runs as US and tag champ.) Here was now an opportunity to push him for a longer stretch.  The problem was he wanted to face the retired Shawn Michaels.  The company wanted him to face old nemesis Sheamus.

The 2014 Royal Rumble was won by the returning Batista who hadn’t wrestled in nearly four years.  Originally pushed as a good guy, The Animal had to turn heel ahead of schedule because the audience preferred Bryan, an inevitability he had already privately warned the bookers about.  Now the number one contender to Randy Orton’s newly unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the audience wasn’t thrilled about a main event featuring two former members of Evolution.

In the build to WrestleMania 30, Bryan kept demanding a match with Triple H who repeatedly turned him down.  It wasn’t until the Occupy Wall Street-inspired Yes Movement on Raw that The Cerebral Assassin angrily gave in.  Adding intrigue was the tantalizing stipulation that if Bryan actually won, he would be inserted into the main event, giving him another shot to regain his championship.

On the night of the show, Bryan and H had a tremendous 30-minute opener with the Yes Man getting the win.  Despite a post-match beatdown, complete with vicious chair shots to his arm, Bryan would move on to defeat Orton & Batista to regain the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.

On the day of his wedding that summer, Punk was officially fired.  Bryan would have to forfeit the title two months later because of a persistent neck injury.  After missing much of 2014, Bryan would briefly return at the start of 2015 hoping to get another title push.  He had to settle for an InterContinental title run that would also be cut short because of another serious injury.  After another long absence, Bryan officially retired on Raw in early 2016.  Punk is now training for his first UFC fight.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 9, 2016
12:06 a.m.

Published in: on April 9, 2016 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  

The Omen (1976)

That look.  It’s unmistakeable.

Respected American diplomat Gregory Peck is reeling.  His beautiful wife, Lee Remick, has just delivered a baby that “drew breath for a moment.  And then breathed no more.”  A priest has a potential solution.  A mother just died giving birth to a newborn son.  Why not adopt him as a replacement?

Peck is adamant.  Remick wants a biological child.  At the same time, he’s deeply concerned that trying again will kill her.

Then, he is shown this new baby.  The priest suggests there’s a family resemblance.  He proposes the following:  adopt the child, but never acknowledge this to Remick.  Pass the boy off as the son she just gave birth to.  (She doesn’t know her own child didn’t survive.)

The expression on Peck’s face is full of doubt and guilt.  Without saying a word, you know he has a bad feeling about going along with this.  But he loves Remick.  In the end, he keeps his deep reservations to himself.

He should’ve trusted his instincts.

So begins The Omen, Richard Donner’s creepily preposterous thriller that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.  Despite its flaws, it’s one of the most beautifully photographed horror films I’ve ever seen.

A few months after secretly adopting Damien, Peck gets a new job as the Ambassador to Great Britain.  He is soon hounded by another priest who warns him of the bad deal he made in Italy (he was last stationed in Rome) on June 6 at 6 a.m. shortly after his birth.  Peck, understandably, thinks the guy’s a kook and has him escorted from his office.  But then media photographer David Warner (what is with his silly haircut?) takes a snap of the priest after he leaves the embassy.  Later on in his darkroom, he notices something odd, a mysterious object that appears to be jutting out of the priest’s shoulder blade.  It appears again, this time a bit more pronounced in a later photo of the man of God.

At Damien’s 5th birthday party, his young nanny suddenly hangs herself in his honour.  Her eventual replacement (the excellent Billie Whitelaw) suddenly shows up unannounced pretending to have been called into action by “the agency” which temporarily satisfies the skeptical Peck & Remick.  The guard dog that appeared to telepathically order the young nanny to take one for the team suddenly becomes Damien’s personal bodyguard.  (This fucker means business, too.  He never sleeps on the job.)  Peck’s old reservations quickly resurface.  He should’ve heeded that priest’s warnings.

Whitelaw informs the couple one morning that taking their son to church is a bad idea.  We soon find out why.  (How many clever kids imitated Damien’s freakout successfully, I wonder.)  Later on, Remick takes Damien to a local safari where his very presence turns off the giraffes and aggravates a bunch of baboons.  Growing ever more concerned, Peck reluctantly agrees to another meeting with that determined priest who immediately afterward gets impaled by a pole, the once mysterious object that photog Warner noticed in his pics of the man.

His journalistic impulses buzzing, Warner soon after gets in touch with Peck.  Peck thinks he wants compensation for accidentally breaking his camera.  Warner really wants him to see these photos.

Meanwhile, Remick is pregnant again and completely freaking about Damien.  (She’s smart enough to realize instinctively that is not her biological son.  As Peck notes at one point, the boy never gets sick.)  She starts seeing a shrink.  Peck learns she’s pretty much done with the whole mothering thing.

Now convinced that Damien is indeed the son of the devil and that he will soon lead an army of demons to conquer the Earth, he teams up with Warner to follow up on what the dead priest told him.  (The priest who convinced him to adopt probably wishes he was dead, too.  He’s in rough shape when the two visit him.)  Warner shows him another photo, this one of the photog looking at his own reflection in a mirror.  There’s something else in the shot.  An ominous sign.

Watching The Omen again for the first time in more than 20 years, I’m struck by how much of an influence it had on the Final Destination franchise, particularly the use of foreshadowing horrific deaths through unexplained objects mysteriously appearing in photographs.  In the film’s most infamous scene, a character gets beheaded by a huge sheet of glass.  The set-up for that moment clearly inspired similar ones in the overly gruesome FD series.  The Omen, however, makes it work.  (Yeah, you can tell the head is fake.  It doesn’t make it any less creepy.)

What also stands out for me is the incredible cinematography, especially when it focuses on Gregory Peck’s face.

Peck radiates decency in every scene, never more so than when he expresses serious doubt and anguish about his family crisis.  After a man in Apartheid Israel gives him some special knives for the purpose of executing his own son, there’s a great shot set aboard a private jet.  Peck, the only passenger, is stone-faced, staring straight ahead with the knives laid out on his lap, clearly uneasy about his mission.  He doesn’t blink, he doesn’t move.  He knows what he must do but he doesn’t like it.  We feel for his dilemma.  Peck always says more with his face than he ever does with his dialogue.

Horror films by their very nature are often ugly.  Rarely are they allowed to be elegant.  Because it’s set in the privileged world of international diplomacy, The Omen is a notable exception.  The way that world is depicted in this film, most especially in the first act, nicely captures the rather idyllic tranquility of political immunity, an illusion that will be dramatically shattered.  It helps the story that we like this well-to-do couple.  Despite his wife’s cheeky hope that he’ll one day run for President, Peck is perfectly happy being as far removed from the electoral firestorms of his home country.  But the sly arrival of Damien is one domestic firestorm he can’t escape.

The cinematography is so good in The Omen I even love the transition shots.  A car driving Peck up to the front of the US Embassy to an awaiting pack of photogs, all done in one uninterrupted take.  A car driving around the curve under the bridge to the family’s new UK mansion.  Peck walking towards the anxious priest in the park.  Peck walking down that staircase in the Rome estate.  Or how about when the camera imitates an elevator as it moves from the second floor of a Catholic hospice in Italy to the first as Peck opens up about his family crisis.

It’s hard to believe lensman Gilbert Taylor didn’t get an Oscar nod for this exquisite work.  (My favourite shot:  the last scene in the Catholic hospice.  The use of intense facial reflections in the window is very effective.)  Even the graveyard scene, which was clearly shot on a sound stage, looks great.  (Too bad those unhospitable hounds spoil the party.  By God, they’re freaky.)

Speaking of the Academy Awards, I hate to say it but Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score (which includes its nominated opening song) left me longing for John Carpenter’s superior Halloween theme.  (If you want to hear Goldsmith operating at the top of his game, get the soundtrack to the original Total Recall.  I had it on tape for years and am still looking for a CD copy, preferably the expanded deluxe edition.)  My bones were decidedly unchilled.

Thankfully, because of a good script and strong performances, the film has enough of an uneasy atmosphere all its own to neatly compensate.

The Omen is by no means a great film.  It’s not nearly as scary as Halloween or even the overrated Exorcist (only the scenes involving the war between the old priest & the devil are compelling).  And at times, you really have to suspend your disbelief, especially if you’re a non-believer like me.

But watching it today in the unpredictable climate of the 2016 US Presidential campaign, you see disturbing parallels between Damien and Donald Trump.  Both are prone to temper tantrums.  Both have found sneaky ways to cozy up to the powerful.  Both want to be powerful in their own right.  And both are a serious threat to the natural order of things.

At the end of The Omen, Damien merely holds hands with power.  By November, Trump hopes to attain it all for himself.

Both are disturbing.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, March 29, 2016
3:29 a.m.

Published in: on March 30, 2016 at 3:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Orphan (2009)

She wears ribbons on her wrists and neck.  She dresses like Little Bo Peep.  She paints.  She plays classical piano.  Oh, and one more thing.  She’s a cold-blooded killer.

Esther is a 9-year-old Russian with a lot of secrets.  And she’s about to be adopted by a family with secrets of their own.

The movie Orphan begins with a nightmare.  The beautiful Vera Farmiga in a good performance relives the trauma of losing what would’ve been her third child, a daughter named Jessica.  Not only that, she’s a recovering alcoholic who nearly lost another daughter in an accident near the family home.  Her husband Peter Saarsgard has his own shame.  He’s strayed.  (Hard to believe considering how hot and lovely Farmiga is.)  Both continue to feel tempted to fall back into their former self-destructive ways.

No longer able to bear biological children (her reproductive organs were removed after the stillbirth), Farmiga ultimately decides to adopt.  15 minutes into the movie, Saarsgard hears someone singing The Glory Of Love (not the theme from Karate Kid 2) on the second floor of a Catholic orphanage and meets Esther.  She’s cheerfully working on her latest painting.  Saarsgard’s impressed with her work and blatantly insincere personality.  Her trap is laid.

Shortly thereafter, Esther is introduced to her new siblings, mostly-deaf sister Max (Aryana Engineer) and Guitar Hero-lovin’ brother Danny (Jimmy Bennett).  Things seem to be going well until Danny stupidly decides to shoot his paintball gun at an innocent pigeon.  The power of the shot knocks it right to the ground and he weeps over its agony.  When he refuses Esther’s request to put it out of its misery, she takes a giant rock and squashes it to death.  Lovely.

At school, her outdated attire and unsubtly weird demeanour attracts constant mockery and abuse.  One such bully pays the price when she decides to go down a slide at a playground.  Hope you weren’t too attached to that ankle, kiddo.

After taking some piano lessons from former music teacher Farmiga (who isn’t much of a composer), Esther shocks her one afternoon by playing more fluently than she does.  When she catches Farmiga getting boned from behind by a frisky Saarsgard in the kitchen, she knows very well what they were doing.

Then nun CCH Pounder pays a visit.  She has a bad feeling about Esther.  (Then why did she allow her to be adopted without a thorough background check in the first place?)  So does Farmiga who wonders why Saarsgard isn’t taking her side.  Next thing you know, Pounder’s getting pounded with a hammer.

The diabolical Esther soon threatens both Max and Danny into staying quiet (they know and have seen too much) unless they too want to meet grisly ends.  Meanwhile, Farmiga grows ever more suspicious and eventually discovers that Esther’s behaviour is more consistent with that of a slick sociopath than an innocent child.

Over time, we learn Esther’s true intentions.  She wants Saarsgard.  Sexually.  She develops a phony bond with him which affords her some much needed protection.  As Farmiga and the kids slowly start to turn on her, Saarsgard, ever so foolish, is the stubborn holdout, lamely defending her from every legitimate accusation.  In Orphan’s most aggravating scene, an infuriated Farmiga fails to convince Saarsgard & her very dumb shrink that Esther is the problem, not her own temptation to relapse.

It’s hard to believe Roger Ebert loved this movie.  Orphan is as clichéd as it gets.  The film is somewhat reminiscent of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (another routine thriller) even though Rebecca De Mornay’s vengeful nanny was a much scarier character than Esther.  Both villains act in similar fashion.  They both completely misrepresent themselves to not-so-skeptical families.  When their cover’s about to be blown by smarter characters, they both get away with bumping them off.  Others are merely scared off from speaking out.  As the matriarchs gradually learn all their secrets, the patriarchs stand by them.  Hell, just like Cradle, there’s a scene where the heel has a big freakout in the bathroom that no one else hears.

Which brings us to the big reveal, the true identity of Esther.  It ranks right down there with the bogus twist in The Village, a slightly worse film.  If Esther was genuinely terrifying (and she’s really not), maybe it would’ve had more of an impact.  As it stands, it’s just not credible.

Also not credible is how long it takes for Saarsgard to wake up and pay attention.  Esther has to literally throw herself at him before he finally understands Farmiga’s deep concerns.  By then, it’s too late.  One wonders if Saarsgard’s character was written that unsympathetically for a very specific reason.

Orphan drags out its familiar formula (with a few admittedly intelligent touches) for two hours (Cradle was almost the same length) and while it has its moments (Farmiga and Max acting heroically, for instance), it’s hard to take it seriously.  (There are a few unintentional laughs.)  The supremely smug Esther just isn’t that intimidating or as clever as she thinks she is.  Her “superficial charm” game is so transparent right from the start it’s hard to accept anyone with a brain buying her duplicitousness.  She’s not that good a faker.

It’s a frustrating experience watching this tiny phony hold this entire family hostage when she can be easily & collectively overtaken in five seconds.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, March 27, 2016
7:17 p.m.

Published in: on March 27, 2016 at 7:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Identity Thief

How easy is it to steal Sandy Patterson’s identity?  All it takes is a 2-minute phone call.

Played by an overly trusting Jason Bateman, he has no idea the suspiciously concerned person on the other end of the line is Diana (Melissa McCarthy), a solitary loser who specializes in credit card fraud.  She deceives the gullible twit into giving up all the information she needs to drown him in debt.

At no point during this brief conversation does it ever occur to Sandy that maybe, just maybe it’s a terrible idea to immediately give out your Social Security number to a complete stranger who just called you for the first time out of the blue, most especially to one who tells you flatly that someone is trying to steal your identity.

But Sandy isn’t bright.  The married father of 2 carries on with his mundane day-to-day existence not at all aware that Diana is buying a bunch of crap through his stolen name.  When he tries to buy gas, his card gets cut up right in front of him.  While driving, he’s notified of a huge bill from a store in Florida.  (He lives in Colorado.)

It isn’t until he’s pulled over and arrested that he slowly starts to put things together.  Diana missed a court date for punching someone in the throat (a very tired recurring gag) and it isn’t until officer Morris Chestnut (yet another comedown from Boyz N The Hood) gets confirmation on her appearance that he uncuffs a now frustrated Sandy.

Long story short, because the fraud is happening out of state, there’s not much local law enforcement can do.  In fact, any kind of investigation will take at least a year anyway.  (Really?)  And the chance of conviction is between 5 & 10%.  (Come on.)

The timing could not be worse for Sandy.  He’s just quit his job cutting cheques for dickish boss Jon Favreau to become John Cho’s VP in a new firm.  Cho even considers firing him because of his dilemma.  (Optics, you see.)  But Sandy has an out.  Someone from a Florida hair salon called him by accident to confirm an appointment Diana made in his name.  With the mutual blessing of Cho & Chestnut, the real Sandy has a week to convince Diana in Florida to come back with him to Colorado to turn herself in.

Suddenly, Identity Thief becomes a cross between Midnight Run and Planes, Trains & Automobiles but without any charm or laughs.  From the moment Sandy accidentally bumps his car into Diana’s rental on the highway (he was following her so she decides to pull a pay-in-cash-because-you-hit-me scam), it’s unrelenting war.  She constantly socks him in his Adam’s apple and attempts to flee.  (She doesn’t get very far.)  For his part, he’s either tackling her, bashing her with a guitar or driving erratically so she’ll hit her head on the passenger-side window.  (She never shuts up and sings whatever song is playing on the radio.)

Even handcuffing her doesn’t work.  One bobby pin and she’s free.  Did he not consider chloroform?

Unbeknownst to the clueless Sandy, Diana’s credit card scheme wasn’t really meant for her alone.  She was supposed to sell the cards without actually using them to a couple of nefarious characters who are well aware of her fuck-up.  (So is bounty hunter Robert Patrick who terrifies that salon owner into giving him her personal information.)  Because of this, when they come to her place guns a-blazing, purely for her own survival, Diana sticks with Sandy.  Despite some incredibly obnoxious behaviour on her part you can pretty much predict where their relationship is going.  To say it’s not at all believable would be redundant.

Jason Bateman & Melissa McCarthy are two of the funniest comic actors in the business today.  But you would never know it from watching them in Identity Thief.  They struggle mightily to sell this thoroughly predictable, completely indigestible material.  In the end, they fail miserably.

It’s hard to summon much sympathy for Diana when she’s so incredibly annoying and obnoxious.  A pathological liar who doesn’t even know her own name or birth parents (she was abandoned shortly after her birth), she takes every opportunity she has to embarrass Sandy in public.  (Hasn’t this moron suffered enough?)  At one point, she hooks up with a widow (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet) for the strict purpose of robbing him and stealing his identity.  Part of her seduction technique is to pretend that Sandy enjoys seeing her get intimate with other men.  The whole sequence, like this overlong movie, is painful to watch.

Essentially, Diana is an unloved, overgrown child who constantly acts out for attention and has no idea how to forge healthy relationships with anyone.  Shortly after stealing Sandy’s identity she goes to a bar and buys everyone round after round of free drinks hoping to get some love in return.  Her antics get her kicked out instead and later, arrested.  (The throat punch deal.)

Stonestreet is actually the first person who genuinely likes her or at least the version she’s pretending to be.  After they have over-the-top sex, though, she bolts with his ID and cash hoping to escape all her problems.  She gets as far as Sandy’s car before suddenly becoming overcome with a conscience.  (Oh please.)  Shortly thereafter, she quietly slinks back.  We’re repeatedly manipulated into feeling sorry for her but we really don’t.  She’s out of her goddamned mind.

As if the lack of laughs wasn’t irritating enough, Identity Thief is also awfully maudlin, particularly in its second half.  As Sandy & Diana inevitably stop fighting and start conversing, she gradually wins him over with her sad sack bullshit.  To get back at old boss Favreau who diminished his contributions (Sandy’s job really is nothing, when you think about it), they decide to steal his identity and live the high life.  Then, they get caught.

But Diana has another bobby pin and they escape police custody.  Somehow, these serious fraud charges and the unlawful escape from the back of a police car magically disappear and are never addressed again.  Sure.

There is only one genuinely funny moment in the film.  It happens in the final scene.  Without giving anything away, Diana learns her real name.  Her reaction to how terrible it is made me laugh twice, first after she says it and then again when just thinking about it during a quiet moment immediately afterward.

By that point, nearly two hours have gone by.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, March 27, 2016
6:21 p.m.

Published in: on March 27, 2016 at 6:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Born In East L.A.

Cheech Marin is such a charmless sleaze in the movies.  When his characters are out in public and they spot beautiful women, they always stalk and harass them, without fail.  It’s rather remarkable how often he gets away with it, too.

In Born In East L.A., he plays Rudy, a mechanic who also sings and plays guitar.  On his way to work, he spots a French woman in a dress.  He starts driving around looking for her after she briefly disappears.  At one point, after he spots her again, he starts shouting creepy things at her while the car is in motion but thankfully she can’t hear him.  It turns out this is all completely unnecessary when she’s coming to his shop anyway to pick up her car.  There’s a gross moment where he slides out from underneath it and looks up her dress.  How he doesn’t get slapped is beyond me.

Before he even leaves the house this day, a relative he lives with asks for a favour.  He needs to pick up his cousin (Paul Rodriguez) at a toy factory.  But shortly after he arrives with no cousin in sight, the feds swoop in and round up the many undocumented Mexicans putting together stuffed animals here, much to the annoyance of the owner who’s been through this all before.

When one of the officers (Jan Michael Vincent) discovers Rudy hiding in one of those animals, he asks him very simple questions.  But because he’s a moron who doesn’t even know the name of the U.S. President (at the time, it was Ronald Reagan, not John Wayne) and doesn’t have any ID on him, he gets deported along with everybody else.

Because of rampant bureaucratic stupidity and the fact that he has the same name as an actual undocumented person with a criminal history (the other guy is 57, though), he’s stranded in Tijuana.  His unlikely saviour ends up being Daniel Stern (before he was a Wet Bandit).  He runs a strip joint and needs a doorman to bring in customers.  He pays peanuts but Rudy is desperate.  (He ends up giving him other menial jobs like selling fake IDs & visas and fresh fruit.)

During a break at the pool hall, he meets a beautiful server from El Salvador (she’s stranded, too, and works two other jobs to fund her eventual escape) who at first wants nothing to do with him.  But after watching him teach some “Chinese Indians” (including future Bruce Lee Jason Scott Lee from Map Of The Human Heart) several lessons on how to harass women in English (another Stern job) and after she secretly witnesses him giving away his entire cart of oranges to a desperate mother and her kids out on the street, her heart melts.  It’s not convincing.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez, who arrives just after the raid, gets a lift to Rudy’s family home from the disgruntled toy factory owner and is eventually let in by a kindly neighbour who gives him stolen lottery tickets for some reason.  (We never do know if he won anything.  They’re never mentioned again.)  Because he doesn’t speak a single word of English and is also a total moron, Rodriguez basically hangs out in the abandoned house (Rudy’s relatives are in Fresno for a week) drinking beer, watching the Playboy Channel and freaking out whenever the phone rings.  Why?  Because it’s blocked by a bizarre Jesus crucifixion picture that appears to be blinking.  Every time someone leaves a message, it never occurs to him to move the goddamn picture out of the way and pick up the phone.  Not that that would help Rudy, anyway, since he can barely speak Spanish himself.

It might only run about 85 minutes but Born In East L.A. is a chore to sit through.  There are no laughs. There isn’t much of a story.  And we really don’t care what happens.

Continuing an unwelcome homophobic tradition from earlier Cheech & Chong disasters, there’s a scene where Rudy is locked up in a Mexican jail with two gay men who proceed to harass him and threaten him with rape.  Later when they’re all free, Rudy accidentally bumps into them while en route to a date and they pick up where they left off.  This time, they stick to punching.

The movie briefly comes to life, thankfully, near the end when Rudy hooks up with a local mariachi band and starts doing catchy, mostly straightforward covers of famous rock songs like Purple Haze and Summertime Blues for tips.  (Marin is a good singer & credible rhythm guitar player.)  The title song, an otherwise unfunny goof on Springsteen’s Born In The USA done in a slightly lower key, strangely works in its more horn-friendly arrangement.  They should’ve hired Weird Al Yankovic to pen the lyrics, though.

Some of the film’s musical score is effective and the use of Neil Diamond’s America (a guilty pleasure) from The Jazz Singer in the final act feels appropriate.  But everything else about Born In East L.A. is dumb, annoying and humourless.  Originally released in the late summer of 1987, it’s not exactly remembered with much fondness.  Seen today in the context of a much more hostile xenophobic environment where the Mexican people are increasingly dehumanized by millions of paranoid, misguided, resentful white Americans and opportunistic politicians alike, its utter lack of social commentary on the cruelty of immigration laws and the hypocrisy of American business is even less excuseable now than it was during Reagan’s second term.  It has no ambition whatsoever.

That’s not a surprise.  Marin isn’t much of a screenwriter and even less qualified to direct.  The pacing here is ungodly slow, all the “jokes” exceedingly weak and banal.  Beyond the overt, almost cartoonish racism of the border patrol & INS agents (the scourge of nativism undoubtedly flows through their real-life counterparts), the story has zero credibility.  It’s so paper-thin you could slit your wrists with it.

If only Rudy hadn’t left his wallet at home.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, March 19, 2014
8:58 p.m.

Published in: on March 19, 2016 at 8:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 141 other followers