Fifty Shades Darker

How do you know you have too much money?  You can pay people to do your stalking for you.

In Fifty Shades Darker, Anastasia Steele (a breathy-voiced Dakota Johnson) learns this awkward fact firsthand from her still abusive paramour Christian Grey (a never charming Jamie Dornan).  While discussing his troubled ex, a jealous submissive mourning the death of her husband who recently died in a car crash, he pulls out a rather detailed file on her.  Naturally, Ana asks for hers.  It covers so much minutiae she’s shocked his people didn’t keep track of her bathroom breaks at her old job at the hardware store.

And yet, this is not a dealbreaker for her.

If you recall the original Fifty Shades Of Grey, Ana filled in for her sick roommate to interview Christian in his corporate office.  Despite having absolutely no chemistry whatsoever, a spark was lit.  After drawing up a contract, he eventually introduced her to The Red Room, a private area in his lavish apartment where he sexually punishes his victims.  Belatedly realizing he’s overly controlling and would remain closed off emotionally through their not-so-steamy kink sessions, she walked back into his penthouse elevator and left his abusive ass.

But you knew they wouldn’t stay apart for long.  At a friend’s photo exhibit at the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker, she runs right into him.  Because her friend is secretly in love with her, much to her shock, she’s featured prominently in six of his blown-up pics.  Christian buys them all because he doesn’t want anyone “gawking” at her.  Yep, he’s still an asshole.

Inevitably, they go to dinner where he tries to order for her.  Inevitably, he convinces her things will be different this time.  Inevitably, she wants to reconnect slowly.  Inevitably, they fuck almost immediately.

But it’s also inevitable that she will be presented again and again with uncomfortable revelations that temporarily force her to step back but never break off the relationship for good.  At a salon, for the first time she sees the woman that molded Christian into the dull maniac he has become.  The always elegant Kim Basinger (so great to see her again after so many absent years) plays the bitter cougar who runs the place.  (They only have a platonic business arrangement now.)  She’s the one that seduced the corporate takeover artist as a teen and introduced him to whips and adjustable ankle locks.

Despite being very upset about being taken here, the relationship continues.

At another point, she learns the ugly truth about his rough bedroom demeanour.  He deliberately finds women who resemble his biological mother.  (Paging Dr. Phil.)  He finally admits he’s no dominant but rather a sadist.  When Christian invites Ana to live with him, incredibly, she doesn’t say no.

No longer slumming it at the hardware store, Ana now works for Seattle Independent Publishing.  She’s an assistant to her transparently sleazy editor boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) who clearly studied the harassment techniques of Harvey Weinstein.  A concerned Christian warns her he goes through assistants very quickly.  After he inevitably makes his move Ana knees him in the balls and, thanks to one phone call to SIP’s CEO, she gets a promotion.  Good thing she’s read all those incoming manuscripts.

Like its predecessor, Fifty Shades Darker fails in its brief, lazy attempts to make the dickish Christian Grey more sympathetic by giving him a sad backstory.  He has recurring nightmares about his traumatic childhood where we learn his father slapped his real mom around and put out his lit cigarettes on his little chest.  This explains why Christian greatly restricts Ana’s hand movements but inevitably, because he’s desperate to keep her in his life, she’s eventually allowed to go past the lipstick boundary she draws on him.

When she asks about his real mom (MILFy Marcia Gay Harden reprises her role as his adopted guardian), he claims she was a crackhead who died of an overdose.  Is he telling the truth?  Curious how he doesn’t mention the domestic violence.

As the second chapter of this planned trilogy concludes, a weird, random near-tragedy convinces Christian to do something he never thought he would ever do and a new enemy quietly plots his revenge.

After watching two of these films now it’s hard not to notice the similiarites with the otherwise more chaste Twilight series.  Like Bella Swan, Ana Steele is a virgin who gets deflowered by a creepy domineering man with whom she has an unhealthy on-again, off-again relationship.  Like Edward Cullen, Christian Grey is tortured, often emotionally detached and deeply paranoid about romantic rivals.

And like the Twilight series in general, the Fifty Shades films are not terribly exciting nor emotionally involving, especially during the love scenes which are astoundingly unsexy.  Dakota Johnson is a good-lookin’ dame with a hot bod but because we have such contempt for the chiselled Christian we feel nothing as he surreptiously fingers her in a crowded elevator, puts a couple of stringed silver balls in her pussy and spanks her in his old childhood bedroom, not to mention all the other steamless boning that takes place.

At least he has good taste in music.  (He works out to The Police but sadly, not Every Breath You Take.)

Basinger’s character is convinced Ana is all wrong for him, that she doesn’t understand his needs, that she’s just the latest in a long line of discarded would-be subs.  To the contrary, Ana has felt she can soften his edges enough so he can open up to her more which annoyingly already appears to be happening.  And yet, he hasn’t completely evolved.  Before the fallout with Jack, she’s supposed to go on a business trip with him to New York (red flag) which Christian forbids.

Make no mistake about it, Christian has never seen Ana as an independent, autonomous person with the right to say no.  He has always viewed her as a prized possession, one he covets more than anything else he has ever acquired in his life.  The more she resists and contemplates, albeit halfheartedly, escaping for good, the more panicked and needy he becomes as he unconvincingly lures her back in with what she truly wants:  deeper intimacy.

But how do you achieve true intimacy with a wealthy jerk-off who has so much baggage that he has never made peace with?  How do you maintain monogamy when the remnants of his past are still very much a part of his present?  I’d like to say the answer is you can’t.  But Fifty Shades Freed, the upcoming final installment in this heatless franchise, will most likely disagree.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, November 17, 2017
12:22 a.m.

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Published in: on November 17, 2017 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Neon Maniacs

“When the world is ruled by violence and the soul of mankind fades, the children’s path shall be darkened by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs.”

So begins this extremely cheesy, not so scary regurgitation of tired horror clichés.

Who are the Neon Maniacs?  They’re monster archetypes who only come out at night to kill cops, birds and teens for reasons that are never ever properly explained.  This is for those who thought Friday The 13th was too cerebral.

After the super serious narrator utters those pretentious opening lines to a black screen, we fade in as a fisherman gives up trying to catch something.  As he walks back home, he spots an animal skull, flips it over and finds a pack of trading cards featuring, you guessed it, the Neon Maniacs.  When he looks at one featuring a demon with an axe, guess what happens.  I don’t think I was supposed to laugh that hard.

During the day, the monsters hide in a locked, abandoned storage space under the Golden Gate Bridge. When night falls, they start to roam looking for new victims.  It just so happens that a bunch of drunken, horny teenagers are hanging out in a nearby park.

Only one, a virgin, survives.  Yeah, I didn’t see that comin’.

When she gives a statement to the police, because this is a very dumb horror film, they don’t believe her. They think it’s a terrible prank.  When virgin girl returns to school, the sister of one of her missing friends angrily confronts her in the cafeteria.  Shortly thereafter, the principal sends her home for a while.  It’s hardly a punishment.  Her parents are on a European vacation and she gets to lounge around in her swimwear by the family pool.

While making one of his deliveries for his father’s grocery store, an aspiring musician with a big ol’ crush on her (he intervenes on her appreciative behalf during the lunchtime fracas) refuses a tip in exchange for a movie date.  But on their way to the theatre, the monsters catch up with them on the subway.  Unlike the way they immediately confront virgin girl’s friends at the park, these now suddenly hesitant villains corner the burgeoning couple…and do nothing else which eventually allows them to get away unscathed.  There’s another predictable incident on a bus with a similar outcome.  That special effect has not aged well.

Meanwhile, a horror-lovin’ tomboy, an aspiring filmmaker, keeps bugging virgin girl for intel on the Neon Maniacs, thanks to an informative call from one of her gossipy collaborators.  (The only evidence of their existence is some green goo left behind in the park.  The cops can’t determine what it is exactly.  Where’s Grissom when you need him?)  She’s tight-lipped so one night, tomboy takes her giant camcorder with her on a surveillance mission and makes an important discovery.  Water is their weakness.  Good God.

Near the end of the film, there’s a really terrible battle of the bands event at their high school.  Virgin girl’s new boyfriend turns out to be a wimpier Rick Springfield as his pitiful group competes with an even worse glam metal foursome.  (I owe Krokus an apology.)  Cut in the middle of these bad performances are scenes of the surviving Maniacs secretly infiltrating the school.  (Guys, breaking glass seems unnecessary when you can just walk right in through the open door.)  Because everybody on the dance floor is in costume, they blend in until tomboy spots one.

Out comes the squirtgun.

Although Neon Maniacs has a couple of genuine laughs (tomboy burns a nervy cop for riding her bike without permission, for instance), this hopeless, derivative mess produces more unintentional moments of amusement than actual frights.  (The easy listening synth-pop soundtrack doesn’t help matters.)  The cops take forever to actually infiltrate the monsters’ secret lair and they’re not exactly thorough, either.  The pacing is rather sluggish, as well.

Looking back, the timing of the film’s original release felt off considering how unpopular most slasher films had gotten by the middle of the 80s.  (In contrast, monster movies never go out of style which is probably why the heels aren’t human.)  There is zero interest in offering any kind of backstory for these one-note nocturnal demon killers.  (Where did they come from?  Why do they live in San Francisco?  What do they do when they’re not homicidal?  Why are they homicidal?)  And it’s hard to fear them when they can be easily defeated by a basic necessity.

As for the ending, yes, it’s most unsatisfying but what would you expect from a threadbare plot that uses mystery as a cover for its complete and utter lack of cohesion?  Put simply, there is no resolution and it’s completely ridiculous.

Neon Maniacs had a very brief theatrical run in 1986.  Is anybody surprised?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, November 13, 2017
9:13 p.m.

Published in: on November 13, 2017 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

31

Can we stop pretending that Rob Zombie is a legitimate filmmaker?  At this point, with six theatrical features under his belt, there’s no escaping this undeniable truth.  The man is a hack, an overwrought schlockmeister who is so bereft of original ideas he’s now recycling his own.

Set on Halloween 1976, 31 is a derivative cross between his debut House Of 1000 Corpses and The Running Man.  A van full of travelling circus freaks get sneak attacked by another group of circus freaks.  The five survivors are kidnapped (three get stabbed to death) and informed by Roddy McDowell (who looks like an extra from Amadeus for some unknown reason) that for the next 12 hours, it’s kill or be killed.  (He makes random announcements over a loudspeaker while one of his colleagues makes periodic countdown updates.)  The action takes place in what looks like an abandoned prison.

Each is given a number and odds on how long they’ll last which ultimately get adjusted throughout the course of the film.  McDowell and two other powdered-wigged old ladies (one of whom is Jane Carr, the sex-obsessed divorce counsellor from Dear John) place their bets accordingly.

First, they have to survive Tiny Latino Hitler.  Then, a couple of Leatherface wannabes, a tall German man in a tutu, his much shorter girlfriend and the big boss, as it were, Doom-Head (Richard Brake), a chatty freelance murderer.  Imagine if Jack Nicholson played The Joker while looking like Heath Ledger from The Dark Knight but without the wit and actual terror.  Considering how much of a raging misogynist he is, it’s amazing he has a girlfriend.  Fun fact:  he likes banging while watching Nosferatu.

Speaking of that, hardly a moment goes by without a female character being referred to as a bitch, a cunt or a whore, and almost everybody is obsessed with sex but in repeatedly gross and annoying ways, both tired Rob Zombie trademarks.  (We could be spared the cake joke and the baby joke.)  Not content enough to fail solely as a director, he once again bombs as a writer offering some of the clunkiest, overwritten dialogue you’ll ever hear.  (One character makes up a terrible song while on the toilet.  And yes, because this is a Zombie production, you hear the plop near the end of it.)

We spend way too much time in the beginning of the film getting to know the victims who we immediately don’t like and don’t care about.  Zombie’s charismatic wife, Shari Moon Zombie (the only one to appear in all of his terrible movies), is an oversexed pothead with a lion bandanna for a top who teases a grumpy old man at a gas station.  (Yep, she gets “slut” shamed for it.)  Former Sweathog Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs employs a very bad Jamaican accent.  Meg Foster (who played a witch in The Lords Of Salem), Jeff Daniel Phillips (Moon’s fellow DJ in the same film) and Kevin Jackson round out the cast of unsympathetic victims.

As the game of death drags on, it’s not a surprise who the final survivor will be.  But did they actually survive?  31 ends rather inconclusively for reasons I suspect involve yet another unnecessary sequel.  Instead of finishing off the last “contestant” in an instant, Doom-Head gets gabby.  In between a punch to the head and a brief but not fatal strangulation, he wastes time by quoting a famous revolutionary and declaring his intentions.  Just as he’s about to finish the job he just got paid double to do, time runs out.  The sole survivor, bloodied and bleary-eyed, staggers out on the street walking nowhere in particular.  Then, a van pulls up behind her and a man steps out.

You guessed it.  It’s Doom-Head.  (The name Joker was already taken.)  They stare each other down, he pulls out his trusty switchblades…

And that’s it.  Fake home movie footage of our doomed heroes in happier times plays (did we just get Thelma & Louised?) and a van with a devil head on the back doors rides down the road as a cool acoustic instrumental plays and the end credits roll.

Rob Zombie had such a difficult time raising money the traditional way for 31 he had to resort to crowdsourcing.  Maybe the industry is finally acknowledging what I have believed since the beginning.  The man can neither write nor direct.  He doesn’t know how to scare you.  He only knows how to irritate and disgust you.  That being said, 31 is not his worst film.  (At least no one gets raped this time.)

Zombie appears incapable of making an effective thriller but he knows a good pop song when he hears one.  And every once in a while, in between pretentious 70s-style freeze frames and hard-to-follow shakiness, there’s a decent camera shot (like the one that introduces Doom-Head who at first resembles a shadowy, stick-figured alien as he walks towards his first victim) and a somewhat successful attempt at Tarantino-like small talk.  You have to admit the cockroach bit in the opening scene is fascinating.

But his lack of a terrifying imagination is undeniable at this point.  He just doesn’t possess the professional polish of a John Carpenter or the clever, philosophical underpinnings of a Wes Craven.  He has no love for his characters, especially women.  And he doesn’t know how to suck in an audience like Alfred Hitchcock.  He traffics in bloody mediocrity by the truckload because he can’t produce original, suspenseful scenarios.

Put simply, when a Zombie production begins, you just want it to end already.  But like franchise horror villains who won’t stay dead, you know he’ll be back to bore us once more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, November 5, 2017
3:09 p.m.

Published in: on November 5, 2017 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Revisiting Harvey Weinstein’s 2014 Appearance On The Howard Stern Show

On January 15, 2014, Harvey Weinstein appeared on The Howard Stern Show.  He was in to promote two new movies, August: Osage County, which starred Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, and Philomena with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.  Much of the fawning discussion revolved around successful moneymakers for Miramax and The Weinstein Company which helped solidify Weinstein’s professional reputation as an art house mogul with the golden touch.

But in the wake of the endless deluge of sexual harassment and assault stories that have recently plagued the now fired co-founder of TWC (who also just got banned from the Motion Picture Academy) (October 16 UPDATE: he’s also been kicked out of the Producers Guild of America.), some parts of the interview are worth another look.

According to MarksFriggin.com, Mark Mercer’s superfan site that’s been summarizing daily broadcasts of The Howard Stern Show for decades, at one point during the interview, Weinstein volunteered a story he claimed was an exclusive:

Harvey said he’ll tell him a story that he’s never told.  He said he had a script called Good Will Hunting years ago.  He said that they needed 1 million dollars to make the movie.  Harvey said he walked in and had a meeting with Kevin Smith and someone else.  He said at one point there was a blow job scene.  He said they put that scene in the movie to test the movie studio heads.  They were wondering who read the script and he was the only one who noticed it.  He said that’s how the movie got made.”

The official HowardStern.com website relayed the same story this way:

MATT DAMON, BEN AFFLECK AND ORAL SEX

First up, Harvey wanted to tell a story that he could never tell before (because he’s never been in a long-form, uncensored environment like Studio 69 [in the Sirius/XM building]).  He met with the young, unknown duo of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon when they were shopping around their script Good Will Hunting.

Harvey liked the script, except for one odd scene where the professor (played by Robin Williams) gives another professor a blow job.  Ben and Matt said they put that scene in as a test – Of all the executives they met, Harvey was the only one who noticed.  He’s one of the few ‘moguls’ who actually reads scripts.”

A little later on in the interview, according to MarksFriggin.com but curiously not mentioned on HowardStern.com, there was this now uncomfortable exchange:

“Howard said he has to imagine that every starlet in Hollywood wants to blow him.  Harvey said it works that way for the actors.  Howard said actresses could be made a star overnight.  Harvey said the risks are too great and he can’t do that.  Howard said he’s saying he can’t just go into a room and pull down his pants and tell someone to do something to him.  Harvey said there are some that may have done that but that’s not what he does.

Howard said he knows some directors who have said the same thing.  There’s not that much of that going on.  Harvey said there really isn’t.”

With the massive, ongoing fallout following several damning exposes in The New York Times, The New Yorker and more recently, The Washington Post, among numerous other publications online and off, which has inspired other women to publicly accuse other prominent Hollywood talent for similar abuses, this part of the interview has aged rather poorly, to put it mildly.  Stern, a supposedly good interviewer, looks really dumb here buying into Weinstein’s load of bull without question.  (October 16 CLARIFICATION:  TMZ has released audio from the interview.  Reading Stern’s quoted questioning plays very differently than Mark Mercer’s admittedly imperfect summary.  Although he did not call him out for lying, the way Stern premised his question (“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work like that.”) reveals that he wasn’t a naïve observer.)  (Also, Katharine Hepburn won 4 Oscars so Weinstein’s daughter was wrong about no woman in Hollywood ever achieving that.  Weinstein claimed she said that Streep would win her fourth for her work in August: Osage County.  She didn’t.) 

After briefly discussing politics (Weinstein supported NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and vowed to take on the NRA which he called “a disaster area”), according only to MarksFriggin.com, Stern brought up his second marriage:

Howard said sex with his wife must be through the roof.  Howard asked if he worries about his wife, Georgina Chapman, running around behind his back.  Harvey said it’s a solid marriage.  He said she’s great.”

Oh, the irony.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, October 15, 2017
6:59 p.m.

UPDATE:  From MarksFriggin.com’s report of today’s broadcast:

“Howard said he knew he was lying…Howard said he knew a girl who told him years ago that she had met with Harvey and he had come on to her and she laughed.  Howard said she was laughing about it and said she got up and left.  Howard said she made it seem like it was no big deal…[With regards to Hollywood in general] Howard said there’s a lot of pedophilia going on too.”

So, why didn’t he call out Weinstein for lying to him right there and then in 2014?  And why did he seem to agree with him by noting that other directors had told him the same thing about the lack of harassment and abuse, another big whopper?

Later, during Robin’s news, as a number of Weinstein stories came up for discussion, there was this summarized exchange:

“Howard asked why it didn’t come out back then.  Robin said no one jumped on it.”

Indeed.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, October 16, 2017
5:49 p.m.

Published in: on October 15, 2017 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Alien: Covenant

There’s a pivotal moment early on in Alien: Covenant that will feel very familiar to those who remember the original.

It’s December 2104.  2000 colonists, 1140 embryos and a small crew made up mostly of couples are en route to a distant planet to start a new civilization.  While in hyper-sleep, they float right into a dangerous energy storm, the outer space equivalent of turbulence.  Unable to be freed in time, Captain James Franco burns to a crisp in his locked pod emotionally crushing his devoted girlfriend Daniels (Katherine Waterston in a breakout role).  All the other crew members manage to get out of their confining spaces no problem.  Everybody else remains safely tucked away as before.

While fixing the damaged sail outside, Tennessee (the capable Danny McBride in a rare dramatic performance) picks up interference in his helmet.  Once safely back onboard, the badly recorded message is played back.  Some mysterious person is singing a John Denver song.

The message comes from a planet, one of five the Covenant is about to reach.  It looks inhabitable.  Instead of waiting seven years and four months to land on the original planet they were planning to colonize, why not drop in on this one right now?  The trip will only take three weeks.

Oram, the shaky, resentful new captain (well played by Billy Crudup), is all for it.  So is everybody else, except Daniels who pulls him aside and questions the wisdom of this sudden gesture after a decade of carefully preparing the original mission.  He dismisses her concerns.  She insists he’s making a terrible mistake.

Outvoted, Daniels reluctantly joins the landing party in the middle of a terrible storm.

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching these Alien movies over the years, it’s this:  no matter what, never ever respond to a signal sent from a planet you’ve never visited before.  As John Hurt and the crew of the Nostromo found out the hard way, when your hyper-sleep is interrupted, you’re in serious shit.

So, it’s not exactly a surprise that our colonist heroes find themselves landing right into a carefully laid trap.  The brilliant Michael Fassbender returns as David, the sneaky synthetic from Prometheus that lured them here on purpose.  Briefly sporting long blonde hair like Iggy Pop, he finds himself deeply attracted to his doppelganger, another synthetic named Walter (also played by Fassbender) who arrives with the colonists.

Fassbender not only uses different accents but distinct personality traits to neatly distinguish the two characters.  While the British David is coldly seductive and deceptive about his motives, American Walter is loyal and good in a crisis whether it’s putting out a fire on the temporarily damaged Covenant or protecting an appreciative Daniels from an attack.  There’s a wild scene where David teaches Walter how to play a homemade wooden flute.  As you watch, you marvel at how far special effects have come since the original Alien.  It really looks like Fassbender played both parts at the same time.

Almost immediately upon their arrival, it’s clear that Oram should’ve listened to Daniels.  (To his credit, he sheepishly admits this later on.)  Two colonists quickly fall ill and die horrible deaths.  A third gets murdered.  A fourth accidentally blows up their shuttle while doing battle with that recently birthed and very hungry xenomorph (not to be confused with the also insatiable neomorphs).  Over time, more are decimated by these rapidly growing malevolent predators.  (Notice the floating head in the water.)  Unless the Covenant is willing to risk catastrophic structural damage by moving in closer to this deadly scene, our heroes will be stranded here forever.  The unapologetically sinister David is surely counting on this for a whole lot of depraved reasons.

When Alien: Covenant was being previewed on TV this past Spring, it didn’t look too good to me.  (I try not to pre-judge films based on their trailers but they usually predict how you’ll feel about the finished work.)  I had no idea the film was a follow-up to Prometheus, which I admired.  So, when it begins with David and his creator Weyland (Guy Pearce in a wonderful cameo without all that old man make-up on this time) having an intriguing, ironic conversation about determining the elusive origins of man, I found myself drawn in right away.  (What a beautifully photographed scene it is, too.)

Ridley Scott’s decision to do a series of prequels leading up to the original Alien was a risky one.  (Remember all the rightful grumbling about George Lucas’ second and less inspired Star Wars trilogy?)  And, to be fair, not everyone is a fan of Prometheus like I am.  But it’s clear he made the right call.  Alien: Covenant is more jolting in its scares than its more philosophical and restrained predecessor.  It’s also much gorier, usually a cheap shock tactic for more desperate horror films, but here, because the film takes its time building up to these very effective moments with characters that are intelligently developed, the use of blood doesn’t feel excessive.  In fact, it adds to the tragedy of this doomed mission.

A surefire contender for a number of technical Oscars next year, most especially for its incredible visual effects, Alien: Covenant is a beautiful looking film about the ugliness of creation and the foolish nature of human impulsiveness, recurring themes in this ongoing series.

While you might wonder how that switcheroo is able to take place in the film’s final act (something you see a mile away), it leads to a rather good ending that neatly sets up the next installment.  If Ridley Scott directs that one, too, based on all his previous Alien movies, including Covenant, the odds of it being a compelling thriller, as well, are very much in his favour.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
7:54 p.m.

Published in: on October 3, 2017 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

First, there was the Sith.  Then, there was the Galactic Empire.  Now, there is the First Order.

Led by a mysterious deep-voiced giant named Snoke, the new Supreme Leader, these ruthless savages are out to crush the Rebel Alliance once and for all.  Meanwhile, there’s a certain Jedi, the last one of his kind, they are desperate to find and kill.

I have waited two years to find out what everybody else already knows.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an absolute delight, a restoration of faith after a globally beloved franchise disappointingly lost its way with The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, Revenge Of The Sith and the oddly animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  No more boring tax disputes, no more stiff Canadians bombing their heel turns, no more Jar Jar fuckin’ Binks.

Thanks to the absence of George Lucas, who was wisely cast aside after bungling the prequels, J.J. Abrams ably steps in and achieves almost the impossible.  He’s made a film that comes oh so close to being as great as Return Of The Jedi.

Let’s face it.  The original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are untouchable classics.  You’re never gonna top them.  With that firmly in mind, Abrams leads his vast team of talented co-creators through a clever story that nonetheless sucks you right back into this saga.  With two follow-ups in the works, we will finally have our nine-film series.

I cannot praise Adam Driver enough for his memorably cruel performance as Kylo Ren, the new Darth Vader.  Maintaining the multi-generational arc of this entire franchise, he is Han Solo’s son and he is troubled and torn.  He actually talks to the dead skull of his grandfather, Anakin, as he struggles to maintain his villainous ways.

His mission at the start of the film is to locate an elusive piece of a map that will lead to the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill in a brief cameo), the First Order’s number one target.  It’s on a futuristic looking flash drive that is placed in a cute BB-8 droid.  (Imagine a softball placed on a basketball that chirps its dialogue.)  After a rebel village is burned down and wiped out by the First Order, the BB-8 manages to escape with this valuable piece of intelligence fully intact.  It ends up finding an irritated Rey (Daisy Ridley), a loner who literally lives in a fallen Imperial snow walker out in the desert wastelands of Jakku and makes ends meet by scavenging for food rations.  She’s patiently awaiting the return of her long absent family.

During the raid, a reluctant stormtrooper refuses to participate in the carnage.  When the Rebel Alliance’s best pilot Poe (Oscar Issac) is apprehended by Kylo Ren and his team (he was given the flash drive by Max Von Sidow before placing it in BB-8), they return to one of those awesome Imperial Destroyers for the inevitable interrogations.

Poe’s no Jedi.  He can’t resist Kylo’s magical brain squeezes for long.  Once he learns where the map piece is, the dark one delegates responsibility for a return trip to Jakku.

Picking his spot, that reluctant stormtrooper (John Boyega) rescues Poe and shortly thereafter they’re trying to escape in a locked down tie fighter.  Only given a code name rather than a proper one by the First Order (who plucked him from his parents when he was a wee lad), Poe nicknames the terrified deserter Finn.  When they crash land in the hot deserts of Jakku, Finn fears the worst.  Have to admit, I thought he was right.

Severely parched, he eventually finds liquid refreshment in an unusual place and meets the fiercely independent Rey.  But they don’t get much time to get acquainted.  The First Order have arrived right on schedule in a scene with uncomfortable parallels to America’s heartless drone wars in the Middle East.

For years now, Rey has been trying to repair the Millennium Falcon which has somehow made its way here having had several unauthorized owners.  With not a second to spare, it’s go time, Chewie.  This leads to one of several exhilarating action sequences as our heroes inevitably reconnect with the rightful owners of this iconic spacecraft.

Speaking of Han Solo (who else but Harrison Ford could play this part?), things aren’t so great with his betrothed Leia (Carrie Fisher), mostly because of their only child Kylo Ren being lost to The Dark Side.  (He was actually named after Obi-Wan Kenobi.)  After surviving an incident involving unpaid debts (guess he didn’t learn his lesson from the unforgiving Jabba The Hut), Han and Leia reconnect following yet another awesome battle scene.

Also keeping with tradition, the First Order have developed another diabolical, planet-sized weapon of mass destruction, a starkiller (Luke’s original last name during early drafts of the original Star Wars script).  In a bit of luck for the rebels, it relies on the energy of the sun in order to incinerate its victims.  That gives our heroes plenty of time to organize a counter-attack in the film’s familiar but still highly entertaining finale.

When it was announced several years ago, there was a flood of excitement for Star Wars episode 7.  That only intensified with the early teaser trailers that merely hinted at what was to come.  I must confess that one reason I waited to experience The Force Awakens for myself is because I hadn’t forgotten the immediate sting of frustration I felt for the prequels.  Besides, it’s often better to watch movies long after their release because you get a more honest sense of whether it works or not now that the hoopla has died down.  I also wanted to be in the best possible mood before pressing play.

Right from the start, The Force Awakens knows it must grab your attention and never lose it.  It must catch you up to speed in the classic opening motif used for every one of these pictures.  In three paragraphs, we are locked in, thankfully.  Over its two-hour running time, the film never drags nor meanders.  Even when there isn’t any action, there are revelations that keep you focused.

Rey discovers by accident a secret power she never knew she possessed.  Finn’s doubts about his uncertain future become firm convictions.  And Kylo Ren makes a decision he can never take back.

The Force Awakens reminds me a bit of Star Trek Generations and the tricky balancing act it must perform to satisfy its often difficult to please audience.  Bringing back key surviving characters from the first trilogy was a no-brainer.  Watching Ford, Fisher and Hamill appear on screen playing their most famous parts again for the first time in over 30 years can’t help but warm your heart.  You never thought you would ever see them again.

The more difficult task was to invent new characters to care about.  Thankfully, the screenwriters have given us a bunch of well-written babyfaces to rally behind as the series reignites its long dormant creative spark.

Casting British actor John Boyega in the role of Finn was a particularly smart move.  Like the original Night Of The Living Dead, a black man finds himself surrounded by hostile white people.  Finn isn’t exactly Edward Snowden (he was just a sanitation guy on the starkiller base and has no idea how to lower the shields that protect it), but over time his touching concern for Rey, his new friend, transform him and motivate him to do the right thing.  His natural impulse is to run but now that he’s found a real community of individuals to join forces with, he finds a new purpose.  He can finally be his honest, questioning self without fear of deadly reprisal.

Daisy Ridley injects Rey with a feminist determination not unlike Carrie Fisher’s Leia in the original trilogy.  Notice how upset she gets when a well-intentioned Finn twice tries to take her hand as they flee those relentless First Order tie-fighters.  She is fiercely independent and she can handle herself.  Finn can’t help but find comfort in that.  I’m not sure pairing them romantically is believable, though.  (You wonder if that feels a bit forced.)  Thankfully, their relationship does work platonically.  You most certainly buy them as friends.

I could go on and on about the film’s technical achievements, particularly its stunning, Oscar-nominated special effects.  As you watch the battle scenes, you never feel lost in the chaos.  Even when the camera rotates, you always know where to focus your eyes.  And the wit so sorely lacking in the prequels has made a triumphant return.  I was surprised how much I laughed.  Although the screenwriters manage to successfully spread the one-liners around, no one is funnier than Harrison Ford.

There’s an unmistakable sense of deja vu when Solo, Chewbacca, Rey and Finn walk into an alien bar filled with colourful extras, including another funky house band (Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music they play).  It’s here we meet Maz Kanata, the diminutive, digitally rendered, wise old matriarch beautifully voiced by an unseen Lupita N’yongo.  She plays a major role in Rey’s evolution.  Who knew Wookies had love lives?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has reset this franchise in a really intriguing way even if it doesn’t always surprise you.  As the movie ends, two important characters connect for the first time.  You can pretty much anticipate how they’re related.  But here’s the thing.  We want that to happen.  The possibilities are promising.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
7:18 p.m.

Published in: on October 3, 2017 at 7:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Katy Perry: Part Of Me

There’s a moment in Katy Perry: Part Of Me where reality and fantasy uncomfortably collide.

The buxom wide-eyed pop singer, mostly cheerful, professional, goofy and charming, breaks down in a make-up chair.  She doesn’t explain why she’s profoundly sad but she doesn’t really have to.  Near the end of her exhausting year-long global tour in support of her biggest record, Teenage Dream, an unbearable truth emerges.  Her short-lived marriage to comedian Russell Brand is no fairy tale.

They had met on the set of Get Him To The Greek where there was an immediate attraction.  Brand wanted to just hang out but she wanted romance.  After a two-and-a-half hour dinner date, they became inseparable and eventually married.  Before she begins her ambitious tour, she makes sure to have days off so she can fly back home to be with him.  You can’t say she wasn’t committed.

But the constant back and forth takes a toll.  The normally tireless Perry is suddenly squeezing in 15-minute power naps before performing two-hour concerts to packed houses indoors and out and then attending post-show backstage meet-and-greets where you can’t be the least bit cranky.  (She refuses to disappoint her many sweet, dedicated fans including a young Make-A-Wish recipient.)  You wonder how she’s able to turn it on so easily and persuasively despite wanting to crash and collapse.

One night before a show in Sao Paulo, Brazil (the biggest date of the tour), the emotion flows, even after she decides to go on with the show.  Just before she rises as usual from a platform underneath the stage in her swirly, sparkly silver/red costume with a rare forced smile on her face, she is still weeping about him.  When the crowd collectively declares their love for her in Portuguese, the gesture is warmly received.  But there’s no escaping her private anguish.

Part Of Me turns out to be an apt title because we don’t really get the whole story here, just the approved version.  She’s clearly protecting her ex-husband (who is mostly a distant ghost) and their doomed relationship all while maintaining her affable, oddball, sex kitten mystique.  (Call her a real-life Jessica Rabbit but sillier.)  There is no anger, no bitterness, just disappointment.  (Her tears say it all.)  The love of her life wanted kids right away.  She didn’t.  She felt she could have the big career and the happy marriage and despite doing literally everything to make time for both, as she bluntly notes in a resigned tone, the latter still failed.  It’s a body blow, a shock, an unexpected rebuke to her child-like naivete.  (She was 27 during filming but freely admits to acting 16.)  This wasn’t part of the plan.  Hard work is supposed to pay off.  Love is supposed to be like a movie.

Stinging in a more subtle way, Part Of Me hints in one sentence Brand might not have been as dedicated. (For his part, he does pop up on certain tour dates to support his then-wife but the demands of his own career prevent him from further appearances, another reason cited for the quick split.)

Perry’s frustrating love life drifts in and out of the otherwise positive narrative in what is essentially a mostly entertaining concert film interspersed with numerous, revealing backstory sound bites from insiders, contemporaries, family and loyalists that unfortunately aren’t always separated from the performances.  This sometimes gives the film a cluttered, distracted feel.  You wish they’d let the songs breathe on their own without constant interruptions.  Then again, maybe that was the point, an editing metaphor for her life at that time.  Reality intruding on her carefully crafted candy-coloured playground.

By now, everyone knows that her rise to the top of the Billboard charts took almost a decade thanks to numerous obstacles and set-backs.

After abandoning her white gospel roots (her otherwise loving parents, both Penecostal ministers, were ruthless in “protecting” her from the insidious influences of The Smurfs and other “objectionable” family entertainment like The Wizard Of Oz), Perry hears You Oughta Know at a friend’s house and decides that’s who she should become, an Alanis clone.  (Peacock is the closest she comes to aping her unapologetically sexual lyrics.)

So, at 17, she purposefully seeks out Morrissette’s collaborator, Glen Ballard, who immediately takes her under his wing.  But after writing and recording new material and even making a couple of videos, nothing happens.

Then she’s off to Columbia Records where she’s paired with The Matrix, a red hot producing team who urge her to be more angry like…Avril Lavigne.  Seriously.  (There’s a funny moment during a vocal session where she humourously attempts to half-heartedly trash the booth before a take.)

In one of the best scenes in the film, a perplexed Perry wonders aloud why she can’t just write good songs. She is told that The Matrix have whole albums of said material sitting in a vault somewhere.  No one wants to hear them.  Shortly thereafter, the collaboration falls apart.

But as a publicist ally remembers, despite not releasing any of the material recorded for them, Columbia refuses to set Perry free.  They’re wise enough to know she will break through for another company if they drop her.  It makes you wonder, though, why they didn’t just let her be herself in the first place.

So the publicist steals all the “Katy files” on her way out the door as she approaches Capitol.  The then-CEO of the company notices her appeal immediately and signs her.  Unlike the awkward situation with The Matrix, Perry gets her creative freedom and ultimately wins her argument.  The people do want authenticity after all.

In so many ways, Katy Perry’s career mirrors that of other female superstars who had to demand their independence in order to be real with their audiences after having to go along with phony personas, both rejected and embraced, insisted upon by others who thought they knew better.  It’s hard not to think of Pink who reluctantly debuted as an R&B artist only to personally challenge her boss, LA Reid, by releasing a rock ‘n’ roll follow-up that expanded her fan base.  He had to concede her instincts were right.  I wonder if The Matrix did the same.

After the unexpected success of I Kissed A Girl from One Of The Boys, Perry herself was finally rolling, much to her management’s surprise.  The follow-up Teenage Dream album ended up being such a monster (well, Adele aside, as big a monster as we allow in this post-Napster era of declining record sales), five of its original six singles hit number one, a feat never achieved by The Beatles or Madonna.  (When the album was reissued, it spawned a sixth number one.  What was it called?  Part Of Me.)

The film captures the singer at the height of her commercial and creative appeal as it sees her travel the world with her trusted friends, family and co-workers all while maintaining a light, comfortable atmosphere despite keeping to a gruelling, punishing schedule.  (We could be spared fart stretching, though.)

It’s interesting how her upbringing involved so much travel.  As her brother David recalls, the Hudsons rarely lived a year or two in the same place because of their parents’ preaching tours.  It ironically prepared her for the nomadic rigors of her own career.

Perry’s lovely sister is the only family member on the payroll working on the tour.  In a funny sequence, she gets roped into playing the nerdy character Katy portrayed in the Last Friday Night video for a live performance of that song.  Despite half-jokingly demanding “triple pay” for the stunt, she turns out to be a good sport.  The rest of the time she’s rounding up excited superfans in silly costumes to climb up on stage for a surprisingly fun cover of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody which includes a boy in a homemade hot dog costume and a grown man in a leotard and colourful wig.  Like Kesha, another woman who has had to fight for her authentic self and break free from manipulative, powerful Svengalis, Perry inspires her mostly young fans to embrace their own eccentricities without judgment or external disapproval.

After Perry’s marriage falls apart, in a bittersweet moment of irony, her sister tries on dresses for her own upcoming wedding.  Genuinely supportive of her, Katy’s familial joy is still undeniably tainted by her own loss of happiness as evident by that very quick moment where she dabs her eye and looks away.  Like the crying scenes that precede it, it’s a rare display of vulnerability.

We also meet her outspoken grandmother who recalls Perry as a perpetual show-off who rolled her eyes too much.  (It’s neat seeing archival snippets of her from her childhood and teen years.)  During a stop in Las Vegas, her granddaughter pays her a visit in a sweet, funny scene.  Despite having a big smile on her face while attending one of her gigs, when asked at the end of the movie what she thought of Perry’s show, she gives a typically blunt answer:  “Loud.”

Part Of Me never really shows its subject in a remotely negative light.  It reminds me a bit of the underrated Elvis:  That’s The Way It Is, the 1970 concert doc that showed similar scenes of playfulness, kindness and skillful determination but no jerky diva behaviour or serious character flaws.  The Elvis doc showed Presley at the start of his Vegas period but before his astonishing, fatal decline.  Released in theatres two years after his celebrated TV comeback special, what had once been shocking was now palatable to gambling seniors.  All through it I wondered what juicy bits were kept carefully hidden.

I felt the same way about Part Of Me.  Much like Presley, Perry is genuinely likeable and sincere.  Her longstanding friendships reflect her strongest trait, her loyalty to her loved ones.  (Based on how she reacts to the end of her marriage, it’s clear she wasn’t the one who wanted a divorce.)  But she’s also faced criticism for her music, how she treated the subject of Ur So Gay, both of which go suspiciously unmentioned, and for some unfortunate moments of cultural appropriation which, to be fair, may have happened after this film’s release.  Unlike Madonna’s excellent Truth Or Dare, Perry isn’t seen having much of a temper or attitude problem.  (She might not be a morning person but she isn’t super grumpy about it.  Gently throwing a pillow at her assistant doesn’t exactly generate heel heat.)  Maybe she doesn’t have one or maybe she didn’t want that exposed.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that everybody, especially public figures, have character flaws which Perry isn’t really willing to reveal beyond being hopelessly addicted to the elusive idea of a fairy tale romance.

But what is revealed is genuinely fun, amusing, delightful, sobering and definitely inspiring.  Perry’s generally good in concert (I also enjoyed her Musicares rehearsal performance of Hey Jude, an appropriate selection, and only disliked a few numbers overall) despite being upstaged too much by voiceovered talking heads.  As she plainly states, her mission is to put smiles on faces.  Judging by my own reaction throughout Part Of Me, she’s good at her job.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, September 30, 2017
1:57 a.m.

Published in: on September 30, 2017 at 1:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Path Of Resistance

I am a thought that rattles your senses
An emotional storm that overwhelms your defenses
The crack in the dam that exposes your weakness
A ray of light shining right through your bleakness

A flash of hope that illuminates the dark
A fresh idea leaving an indelible mark
A quiet revolution that will conquer your fear
A cleansing mechanism making your conscience clear

I am a noise uncomfortable to take
Truthful sounds that smother the fake
I alter the future with a single note
Your lies and deceptions will soon be remote

A path of resistance undeterred by your walls
A refusal of compliance with your accusatory calls
I am The No you refuse to accept
Change is easier when the king is inept

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
3:41 a.m.

Published in: on September 26, 2017 at 3:42 am  Comments (1)  

A Tribute To Bobby “The Brain” Heenan

“You listen to me, you’ll go straight to the top!  You don’t listen to me, you’ll never be heard from again!”

In the golden era of the manager, played by usually retired or semi-retired wrestlers who were exceptional talkers and could advocate for younger talent who couldn’t do it themselves, no one was more exceptional than Bobby Heenan.  Although, few remember his matches, everybody remembers his promos and colour commentary.  He would go on to inspire a legion of imitators, none of whom could top him.

Nicknaming himself “The Brain” for his supposed managerial genius (he was originally Pretty Boy but had to change it because that was also Larry Hennig’s gimmick), the fans preferred “Weasel” thanks to Dick The Bruiser who kept calling him that during his first year in the American Wrestling Association way back in 1974.  (Heenan’s career as a wrestler/manager began almost a decade earlier.)  Bruiser and his tag team partner The Crusher were feuding with Heenan’s team of Nick Bockwinkel and Ray “The Crippler” Stevens at the time.  Both monikers would survive the entirety of Heenan’s career in professional wrestling.

A natural heel with a very sharp sense of humour, the blonde motormouth who often wore glittery sports jackets had an uncanny knack of drawing heat for himself and the numerous wrestlers he represented.  When Bockwinkel and Stevens split, Heenan guided the former to several AWA world titles.  (He also advocated for the AWA tag champions Bobby Duncum Sr. and Blackjack Lanza.)  In 1983, Bockwinkel faced a popular new challenger in Hulk Hogan.  It began a long-running storyline feud between The Brain and the future megastar which carried over into the WWF shortly thereafter.  (Ironically, they were friends in real-life although they did have their tense moments.)

It was there in New York that Heenan truly shined.  In 1984, he stood in the corner for Ken Patera (who he also managed in the AWA) and Big John Studd as they took on Andre The Giant and S.D. Jones in an infamous TV tag match.  At one point, Heenan climbed onto the apron and handed Studd a pair of scissors.  What followed was the humiliation of The Eighth Wonder Of The World as his unruly head of curly hair was severely cut by both Studd & Patera who claimed his long locks as trophies.  Vince McMahon oversold the moment as the “raping” of Andre’s dignity.

Studd’s ongoing gimmick of offering $15000 (it was originally $10000) to anyone who could slam him (and then reneging on the deal when a few were able to do it) led to a match with Andre at the first WrestleMania.  If Andre couldn’t slam Studd within an hour time limit, he’d have to retire.  He scooped him up and threw him to the mat in less than 10 minutes.  As Andre was trying to throw the money to the ringside fans from a tiny WWF gym bag it was stored in, a frantic Heenan flew into the ring to snatch it from him before it was all gone.

The Heenan/Andre feud would carry on into the summer of 1985 when during a match with Studd in Toronto’s old Maple Leaf Gardens, King Kong Bundy would jump into the ring to prevent The Giant from giving Studd a haircut of his own.  Heenan ordered the bald Bundy to splash Andre whose legs were being held down by Studd.  As Bundy jumped into the air, The Brain would sometimes give him an extra push while he was in mid-air as he repeatedly landed on the helpless Giant’s chest.

A similar moment occurred during a TV segment that same year when Heenan was announced as the Manager Of The Year but because Hillbilly Jim gave his votes to Lou Albano, the “Captain” became the official winner instead.

Rightly infuriated, Heenan demanded his own brand of justice.  Studd tackled Jim and held down his legs as Bundy splashed him several times before the ring was cleared by babyface wrestlers from the backstage area, just like in Toronto.

During Hogan’s title defense against The Magnificent Muraco on Saturday Night’s Main Event in early 1986, Heenan mysteriously replaced Mr. Fuji as his cornerman.  And after he caused the beach bum’s disqualification, Bundy saved him from being choked out by the world champion.  Heenan then instructed Bundy and Muraco to do their worst to Hogan.  Lots of avalanches and splashes followed.  This set up the steel cage match between Hogan & Bundy at WrestleMania 2.  After he retained the title, Hogan got his revenge by atomic dropping, punching and whipping The Brain against the steel structure.  Nothing pleased a crowd more than watching The Weasel get his long overdue comeuppance.  It happened a lot.

When Andre returned, he would find a succession of partners to challenge Studd & Bundy for more than a year.  When The Masked Superstar (the future Demolition Ax) and Blackjack Mulligan (Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas’ grandfather) were repackaged as The Super and Big Machines in 1986, Andre donned a mask himself and became The Giant Machine, a gimmick he recycled for stints in Japan.  The Machines & “Captain” Lou Albano (with a masked Andre in their corner) took on Studd, Bundy & Heenan himself in a six-man encounter at The Big Event in Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium.  The Heenan Family won by DQ.

In a surprise twist at the start of 1987, Andre would turn heel by aligning with Heenan in the build to his world title match against former friend Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 3.  Andre would famously lose that match (The Brain desperately complained for a year that the early false finish was really a three-count) but after Heenan sold his contract to Ted DiBiase he would win the rematch through a screw-job during the live Main Event broadcast the following year.

During this same period, Heenan managed Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff.  After Orndorff & Roddy Piper lost to Hogan & Mr. T in the main event of the first WrestleMania, The Brain accidentally noted on TNT that he talked match strategy without the presence of his client.  Deeply offended and already feeling humiliated by being abandoned by Piper and bodyguard Bob Orton in Madison Square Garden, Mr. Wonderful fired him.  But the following year, after Orndorff turned on Hogan during a TV tag match against Studd & Bundy, they reconciled.  Orndorff would unsuccessfully challenge Hogan in a series of world title matches which included the main event of The Big Event and the steel cage match on Saturday Night’s Main Event.

When Heenan started representing “Ravishing” Rick Rude and started comparing Orndorff unfavourably to him, Mr. Wonderful fired him again and briefly aligned with Oliver Humperdink before leaving the company following the first Survivor Series where he once again became a Hogan ally.

After spending almost two years in prison under questionable circumstances, a now babyface and no longer blonde Ken Patera returned to feud with The Brain, his former manager, and various members of The Heenan Family in the summer of 1987.  In the storyline, Heenan abandoned his former charge, leaving him to rot.  The former Olympic strongman challenged him to a TV debate which led to Heenan ultimately wearing a neck brace long after he needed to.

When former eight-time NWA world champion Harley Race joined the WWF in 1986 and eventually became The King, Heenan stood in his corner until an accident during a Hulk Hogan match led to his retirement two and a half years later.  And no, he didn’t have surgery at the hands of The Immortal One, as The Brain humourously unintentionally asserted in a promo.

At the end of 1988, Heenan made another questionable deal with DiBiase.  He sold Hercules to him so The Million Dollar Man could have a slave which led to a mercifully brief program.

After nearly five years without managing a champion, Heenan finally had something to brag about in 1989.  He helped Rude beat The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania 5 for the InterContinental Championship (Warrior regained it at SummerSlam thanks to the antics of Piper who became an enemy of The Heenan Family) while The Brain Busters (Tully Blanchard & Arn Anderson) were able to dethrone the then-longest reigning world tag title holders Demolition during a Saturday Night’s Main Event taping.

When Ax & Smash regained the belts shortly thereafter, Heenan teamed Andre with Haku (who previously teamed with another Heenan Family member Tama) to form The Colossal Connection who won back the straps at the end of the year.  During a WrestleMania 6 rematch in 1990, after Demoltion won the titles for a third and final time, a pissed off Andre who was never tagged in (he was too hurt to bump) finally disassociated from The Brain, a routine that was repeated in a series of subsequent house shows that ended The Giant’s long in-ring career.

Another client who turned on Heenan was Terry Taylor who The Brain renamed The Red Rooster, one of the lamer nicknames in wrestling history.  Taking credit for his early undefeated streak while frequently knocking his abilities, a boiling point was reached during Saturday Night’s Main Event when Heenan’s tirades were aired during the match.  (He was miked for the whole segment.)

After Tito Santana beat him, Heenan ripped into Taylor who retaliated by decking him.  During a later Prime Time Wrestling interview with Gorilla Monsoon, Heenan’s new protégé Steve Lombardi (renamed The Brooklyn Brawler) attacked both men setting up a long series of matches between the two that were mostly won by Taylor.  At WrestleMania 5, Taylor, still going by the Rooster name and now with a silly dyed red faux hawk, easily defeated his former manager in a very quick in-ring encounter.

Things got a lot better for Heenan when he started managing Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig (Pretty Boy Larry’s son later known as The Ax) and guided him to two InterContinental Championship reigns in 1990.  That is, until he started feuding with Ric Flair.  The Nature Boy lost a losers leaves WWF match on Raw to Hennig in 1993 and so The Brain started representing “The Narcissist” Lex Luger who went after Hennig in his place.

Because of his quick wit and intelligent promos, Heenan was paired with both Gorilla Monsoon, his real-life pal, and later Vince McMahon at the commentary table.  The self-professed broadcast journalist would playfully antagonize an always exasperated Monsoon during their many appearances on Wrestling Challenge, Prime Time Wrestling (which spawned The Bobby Heenan Show) and taped house shows at Maple Leaf Gardens, Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden.  Monsoon’s constant refrain of “Would you stop?” whenever The Brain would get under his skin, lie or say something that bothered him was a staple of their endlessly entertaining schtick.

As a kid, I tended to prefer Monsoon and Jesse Ventura, incidentally the first guy Heenan managed in the WWF.  But as a man, there’s no question that Heenan and Monsoon were the best of their era.  When he wasn’t being the Rickles of wrestling, Heenan could masterfully and succinctly assess a wrestler whether he liked them or not.  When he noted The Undertaker’s Frankenstein-like invincibility, he famously asserted, “He’s not human.”  His outspokenness often got him into trouble like the many times he upset The Big Boss Man for mocking his mother which led to a brief storyline.

During the 1992 30-man Royal Rumble match, Heenan was at his memorable best when he shamelessly shilled for The Real World’s Champion Ric Flair who drew number 3 in the draw and ultimately won the vacant world title by being the last man standing.  Heenan’s humourously pleading “be fair to Flair” routine was so good (he’s in a perpetual panic for the entire hour), the entire match was included on a WWE DVD dedicated to his career.  (The entertaining accompanying documentary reveals his utterly charming devotion to his wife and daughter, quite the contrast from his roasty on-camera persona.)

In December 1993, Heenan was literally tossed off Monday Night Raw so he could take a break and recover from a longstanding neck injury.  But in early 1994, he would start working for WCW which allowed him to be closer to his family.  The Brain’s commentary stint there wasn’t nearly as effective as it was in the WWF.  With no Monsoon to drive crazy, it just wasn’t the same.  Dusty Rhodes, Larry Zbyszko, Mongo McMichael and Tony Schiavone were all unsuitable replacements.  The chemistry so easily achieved with his old friend just wasn’t there in the new environment.

The most memorable moments involved an accident and an impromptu eulogy.  Brian Pillman didn’t realize that Heenan was not to be touched which led to a live on-air expletive (Pillman later apologized) and when Gorilla Monsoon died in 1999, Heenan insisted this be acknowledged on the air even though his longtime friend wasn’t a WCW employee.  He later left the commentary table and wept.  (During his 2004 WWE Hall of Fame speech, in a touching conclusion, he wished that Monsoon had been there to see him be inducted.)

As he noted in one of his two autobiographies, Heenan’s experience in WCW was far from positive.  He was let go in early 2000, a year before the struggling company was bought out by Vince McMahon.

After that, The Brain would make infrequent on-camera appearances.  He did guest commentary with Mean Gene Okerlund at WrestleMania 17 during the very short gimmick battle royal (they also found themselves caught in the act with The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young) and also worked brief stints with the XWF (where he reunited with Curt Hennig), Ring Of Honor (where he feuded with Jim Cornette) and TNA (where he attempted to represent Bobby Roode).

In 2002, Heenan’s charmed life changed forever when he was first diagnosed with throat cancer, a cruel twist of fate for a talented man who depended so much on the strength and bluster of his voice.  The consequences of that diagnosis would greatly affect his physical appearance and the sounds emanating from his lightning quick mind.  He would never fully recover.

Earlier today, after years of surgeries to repair his jaw and numerous damaging falls, Heenan died suddenly at the age of 72 surrounded by close family including his wife of nearly 40 years, Cynthia, and his only child, Jessica, who bore him his only grandchild, Austin, who is not yet 10.

As expected, tributes from some of the biggest names in wrestling past and present have been glowing and with good reason.  Bobby Heenan played a major role in the evolution of the business.  He began working in the WWF just as it was about to make its national expansion.  He helped elevate numerous talents whether they could speak or not.  And he could take a bump over and over again even if most of them were as a manager.  No one could turn an audience against him quite as quickly and as effectively as The Brain did.

Heenan never had a five-star classic as an in-ring grappler.  You can’t achieve that with Weasel Suit matches.  But he didn’t need to.  Heenan was first and foremost a talker, a great talker, one you looked forward to hearing every week.  Sure, he derided you as a humanoid and ham ‘n egger for rooting for the babyfaces that often went to war with his Family members and did dastardly things to make his clients happy and successful.  But he kept you laughing and laughing some more.  And he was smart.  Every time he offered an observation, you listened.  The WWE would not be where it is today were it not for him.

Throughout the history of wrestling, there have been great talkers, managers and commentators.  Bobby “The Brain” Heenan was all three at once.

Rest in peace, Weasel.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 18, 2017
2:14 a.m.

CORRECTIONS:  Bobby Heenan was actually 72, not 73.  And he married his wife Cynthia in 1978, not 1974.  The text has been corrected.  My apologies for the mistakes.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 18, 2017
11:41 p.m.

UPDATE:  The cause of death, according to The Tampa Bay Times, was “organ failure caused by throat cancer”.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 21, 2017
4:04 a.m.

Published in: on September 18, 2017 at 2:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Wolf Creek 2

Jean-Luc Godard once said, as Roger Ebert often noted, “The way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.”

In a number of ways, Wolf Creek 2 feels very much like a critique of its predecessor.  The horror/torture scenes in the original were relegated to the final act and had some restraint.  In the sequel, instead of sitting through an hour of tedious build-up, you only have to wait 10 minutes for the explicitness to happen.  This time around, although women still get killed, the male victims suffer far more and for much longer.  And we now know why the villain targets tourists.  No more mystery on that front.

Unfortunately, none of these changes make a lick of difference.  Wolf Creek 2 is not an improvement over Wolf Creek.  In fact, it’s worse.

Once again, a devilishly gleeful John Jarratt returns as Mick Taylor, the Australian drifter who looks and sounds like a stereotypical cartoon but has a horrendous temper, a misogynistic outlook and an absolute hatred for visitors to the breathtaking Outback.  He is not as stupid as he sounds.

In the predictable opening scene, a couple of bored, corrupt traffic cops make the fatal mistake of pulling him over as he passes them on the otherwise vacated road.  He’s not speeding but they’re tired of snacking on munchies and not meeting their quota.  The movie teases a kill scene you know will be delayed.  After telling him his car is a piece of junk and giving him a ticket, they leave, cackling over what they think has been a success.

One of them immediately learns what the audience already knows.  Taylor is a crack shot who rarely misses.  The other won’t be seeing his kids again.  Needless to say, Mick won’t be paying that fine.  Gotta love white privilege.

Shortly thereafter, we meet Taylor’s next victims, a lovey dovey German couple on vacation.  Much like the doomed threesome in the original, they just have to see the famous Wolf Creek crater.  But unlike them, they’ve hitchhiked their way here.  Yes, they don’t have a car of their own.

As night falls, they decide to camp out in the area for the night and wouldn’t you know it, here comes jolly ol’ Mick in his crummy pick-up warning them about the consequences of trespassing.  The boyfriend knows he’s bullshitting and refuses to accept his offer of a ride.  You know what happens next and yes, it’s not pleasant at all.

At the same time, a British fellow trying in vain to have a cell phone conversation with his gal is driving through when he’s flagged down by the now frantic German woman.  With an always determined Taylor in hot pursuit, the chase is on until they temporarily run out of space.  Out comes the rifle.

After disposing all the evidence of Mick’s latest kill, British guy spends the rest of the movie trying to elude his relentless hounder.  At one point, the exhausted man with no more water to drink and no car to drive (it gets blown up real good) collapses at the front door of a kindly older couple who take him in, allow him to rest and even feed him.  There was a moment there where I perversely thought, I bet their Mick’s parents and this is all a set-up.  Nope.  They’re genuinely good-hearted people.  They have no idea what’s in store for them.

Neither does British guy.  Once apprehended by Taylor, he finds himself stuck on the worst game show you can imagine.  Mick will ask him a question, one of ten in total.  Any incorrect answers will result in missing fingers.  With his hands bounded by those zip-lock handcuffs that his captor never seems to run out of, British guy has to get his hands on that hammer.  Good thing he knows his Australian history.

Wolf Creek 2 is the personification of torture porn.  Released nine years after its slightly better predecessor, it revels in its brutality.  There’s a weird scene where Mick turns on the radio in a truck he’s stolen from his latest victim as he pursues freaked out British guy.  As The Lion Sleeps Tonight plays, a bunch of kangaroos jump to attention and suddenly start bouncing across the road.  The CGI doesn’t lessen the unnecessary carnage.

Despite the recent rise of supernatural thriller franchises like Insidious and The Conjuring, the low-budgeted Wolf Creek 2 proved there is still an unhealthy appetite for horror films that make despicable torture a central focus of their stories.  The film made three and a half times its budget.  If that weren’t depressing enough, the eighth Saw movie is coming out this October.  And there’s supposed to be a remake of Hellraiser on the way, as well.

Considering America’s re-embracing of “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the Orweillian George W. Bush era and the lack of accountability for the ongoing blackening of our collective soul, maybe we deserve gutter trash like this.  Wolf Creek 2 serves as an uncomfortable reminder that when we normalize bad ideas like torture in our pop culture, politics is easy.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, September 16, 2017
4:12 p.m.

CORRECTION:  The eighth Saw movie, Jigsaw, is actually coming out this coming October, as noted by Popternative.com, not next year, as I erroneously asserted.  The text has been corrected.  My apologies for the mistake.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 17, 2017
5:30 p.m.

Published in: on September 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment