Solo: A Star Wars Story

There are certain characters that can only be played well by one actor.  Solo: A Star Wars Story depressingly proves the point.

For four movies, Harrison Ford owned the role of Han Solo, the wisecracking nerf herder who evolved from the dangerous worlds of intergalactic hustling and smuggling to become one of the Rebel Alliance’s most crucial and unlikely assets.

The charisma deficient Alden Ehrenreich is not Harrison Ford and it shows in every scene of Solo: A Star Wars Story, the first misstep in the recently revived franchise.  From the moment we first see him stealing a landspeeder we instantly realize how wrong he is for this part.

He’s not charming, he’s not funny, he’s not even dashing.  (Is he trying to sound like Jack Nicholson?)  He’s just a forgettable prop for a misguided prequel.  He may have Ford’s ’77 hair and sideburns but he lacks all the other ingredients that made the original Han Solo such a great character.

As a result, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a long slog, a remarkably uninspired space western, an interstellar heist picture without the heat or the suspense.

Young Solo, estranged from his father (no mention of his mom) and stuck working for a criminal syndicate led by a giant water worm (voiced by Linda Hunt), is romantically involved with fellow runaway Qi’ra (the beautiful but stiff Emilia Clarke).  They hatch a plan to escape their dilemma but only Solo is able to make it past the stormtroopers at the airport.  He vows to reconnect with her despite their lack of chemistry.

Solo desperately wants to be a pilot so he signs up for the Empire’s naval academy.  He claims not to have a last name so the recruiter suggests Solo which I have to admit is clever.  Instead of showing him in training, we cut to him three years later serving as a hapless soldier in the Imperial army.  Clearly out of place, he notices others just like him.

There’s Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his partner Val (Thandie Newton) and their multi-armed CGI compadre Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau).  Solo correctly deduces they could care less about serving the Empire.  They’re hustlers like him.  He wants in but Beckett sells him out.  Left to fend for himself for the amusement of a couple of wagering soldiers, it is here that he first meets the lovable Wookie who will prove to be his most loyal ally.

Having convinced Chewbacca not to beat the shit out of him, they manage to escape and hitch a ride with Beckett and company.  Rio convinces them to give the duo a second chance.

Beckett turns out to be in deep shit.  He needs to do a job for a gangster named Dryden Vos (a badly miscast Paul Bettany who was a last-minute replacement because the original actor was unavailable for reshoots).  It has to go well.  Unfortunately, the plan is so ridiculously complicated it’s no wonder it all goes so horribly wrong.

An Imperial train is passing through.  It possesses a lot of coaxium, a very valuable hyperfuel.  The plan is to steal it while it’s in motion without detection and have the boxcar shipment attached to their ship which turns out to be impossible.  A sensor is accidentally triggered and suddenly villainous droids are released.  Plus, a band of marauders appear out of nowhere wanting the very same coaxium.  In the end, no one gets the fuel and a couple of would-be thieves get needlessly killed.  Despite some very good special effects, this sequence isn’t terribly exciting.

Upon hearing the news, Dryden is displeased.  Before taking this meeting, he murders one poor sap who fucked up for reasons we never learn.  Of course, the same fate won’t befall our heroes, especially since Dryden’s girlfriend is Qi’ra much to the surprise of Solo who still foolishly pines for her after so many years of estrangement.  After much pleading and negotiating, another complicated plan is hatched.

The surviving smugglers will deceive their way into a heavily-guarded Imperial mine under significant surveillance on a distant planet, steal some raw coaxium being unearthed by various enslaved aliens (including Wookies) and fly it back to another distant planet where it will get refined before delivering it to Dryden.  Qi’ra will come along since she knows a guy who can get them a ship.

That guy turns out to be a young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover delivering a smug, charmless, blatantly transparent Billy Dee Williams impression), a smooth-talking gambler who wants his own cut.  He happens to possess The Millennium Falcon, the iconic spacecraft that will eventually be owned by Solo himself.  Accompanied by his activist-minded droid L3-37 (who suggests some sort of weird sexual relationship between them), the gang first have to fly through some kind of cool yet destructive spacestorm before even reaching their first destination.  Many unforeseen calamities threaten to derail yet another foolhardy heist.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the worst Star Wars movie since The Clone Wars cartoon.  The comedy is weak, the characters weaker, although Woody Harrelson is good as the cynical Beckett.  That said, his final act heel turn doesn’t really make much sense.  Yes, it’s not completely out of character for him to do this but still, he has no real reason to screw his remaining allies.  (What happened to the pact he made with Solo?)

Another character’s heel turn also feels unconvincing but at least it leads to the return of one of the few characters I liked from the prequel trilogy.  Jon Favreau isn’t funny and neither is L3-37, despite her welcome solidarity with enslaved aliens and droids.  Bettany was more effective in the equally disappointing Firewall than he is here.

The movie ends with a tease about Solo’s future fateful interactions with Jabba The Hut, the crime syndicate boss he becomes indebted to in the original trilogy.  Considering how dismal this first spin-off story turned out to be, I’m not clamouring for a follow-up.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 17, 2019
6:58 p.m.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally tracks down the elusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  No words are exchanged, just intense glances.  We pick up the scene early on in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  The silence is broken.  The son of Anakin isn’t happy to be found.

Much like Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original trilogy, Luke feels tremendous guilt for unwittingly empowering a future enemy.  As we learn in a series of conversational flashbacks, he trained Ben Solo (the fantastic Adam Driver) only to discover a darkness he could not contain or vanquish.

Because Ben transformed into the heartless Kylo Ren, Skywalker is insistent on letting the ancient Jedi religion and traditions die with him.  No more students, no more training, no more connections with the force.

This alarms the determined Rey who not only wants to become a Jedi master herself but desperately requires Skywalker’s assistance in combating the First Order, the new heel faction founded out of the ashes of the decimated Galactic Empire.  Still led by the overly confident Snoke (a delightfully cold Andy Serkis), occupying all corners of space and conquering all of its resisters remains its top priority.  You could say their ultimate goal is to “clear” the galaxy.

It’s inevitable that Rey’s persistence (with big assists from the always helpful Chewbacca and R2D2) will soften Luke’s resistance.  And it’s also expected that he will play a major role in The Last Jedi’s finale.  But it’s also what we want, one last opportunity to see the now elderly, bearded warrior save the day once more.  The fact that it’s handled so elegantly is both poetic and poignant.

Despite clocking in at two and a half hours, making it the longest Star Wars film to date, The Last Jedi still manages to ably transition from one engaging storyline to the next without losing its focus.  As stubborn Luke slowly relents and teaches Rey the ways of The Force, Kylo Ren communicates with her in what can only be described as Jedi mind Skyping.

Despite being in two different places with a whole lot of distance in between, Ren continually reaches out to the woman he fought against in The Force Awakens.  A defiant Rey refuses to give him what he wants, a powerful partnership.  No longer wearing his mask after being ridiculed by a pissed off Snoke, Ren ultimately ups his Dark Side quotient hoping Rey will eventually see reason.  There’s even a brief moment we think he might turn babyface.  Sneaky bastard.

Meanwhile, the depleting remnants of the Rebel Alliance are being hunted by the First Order’s pale, stoic General Hux (the oily Domhnall Gleeson).  The heroic Poe (Oscar Isaac) succeeds in destroying one of their powerful dreadnoughts only to see a number of fellow fighters vanquished on the same mission.

This aggravates Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher in her last on-screen appearance) who demotes him and admonishes him for disobeying orders.  As the Rebel fleet jumps into hyperspace they soon realize they are not safe anywhere in the vast universe.  The First Order always knows where they’re going.  This leads to a sneak attack that sadly kills off one of my favourite peripheral characters but absurdly not one of the leads.  According to the Wikipedia synopsis, it’s because they used The Force.  Yeah, bullshit.  Anyway, considering what has happened since, it was a mistake.  Now the filmmakers have to make changes for Episode Nine.  They screwed themselves needlessly.

Former Imperial stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) panics after waking up in a weird, water-filled bubble suit and thinks once again of deserting.  But before he’s able to jump into that escape pod he’s caught by the deceptively tough Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who’s a stickler for preventing such departures.  They ultimately team up to find a hacker who can end the Empire’s secret surveillance of the Rebel Alliance’s slowly shrinking squadron.  The stuttering Benicio Del Toro isn’t the guy they’re looking for but they can’t exactly be choosy.

They also need to haul ass.  Time is running out for the survivors.  All the remaining ships will run out of fuel in a matter of hours.  With the First Order constantly firing at them even though they are safely out of range, Vice Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired and always lovely Laura Dern) believes they can all escape on the sly and find refuge on a former Rebel base on a nearby planet.  Poe’s instincts on this decision turn out to be tragically correct.

The Force Awakens has set a very high standard for this revived franchise.  I loved it almost as much as Return Of The Jedi, the last great film in the series.  The Last Jedi can’t possibly match its near greatness and I don’t believe it even tries.  But the new characters introduced in the earlier picture remain the heart of this third trilogy, as evident in this gripping middle chapter.  That’s important as we continue to lose original cast members from the earlier films.

The dynamic at play between Kylo Ren and Rey provokes curious questions.  Are they related?  Can the heel turn the face?  Can the face turn the heel?  Is Rey the real Last Jedi or is she the start of something new?  Is she or is she not Skywalker’s daughter?

With the Rebel Alliance in full retreat after suffering countless losses in a series of devastating (albeit thoroughly entertaining) battles, some serious regrouping and recalibrating is in order.  But are there enough reinforcements for the inevitable final encounter?

Despite its flaws and historical sense of familiarity, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has still managed to keep me interested in a franchise I once spurned in disgust.  The forthcoming Episode Nine has a lot to live up to.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 17, 2019
6:03 p.m.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rogue One

I never thought I needed to know the backstory of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the blueprints to the original Death Star but the thoroughly enthralling Rogue One convinces me it’s one worth telling.  Star Wars doesn’t have the greatest track record with prequels so before I pressed play, I wasn’t expecting much.  But Rogue One is so good, I think it’s superior to The Last Jedi.  I was hooked from the opening scene.

Watching it a few years after its highly successful theatrical run, I’m stunned it didn’t win for its incredible special effects.  This might be the best looking Star Wars film to date.

The movie opens with a crisis.  A family of three scrambles after Director Krannic (the deliciously cruel Ben Mendelsohn) and a band of Imperial goons arrive having discovered their hideout on a distant planet.  The patriarch Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist reluctant to keep working on the Empire’s new secret weapon.  Krannic needs him to finish the job he started.

Eager to protect his young daughter Jyn, Galen orders her to flee and find her special hiding place.  Meanwhile, Galen’s wife makes the mistake of confronting Krannic.

Many years later, Jyn (now wonderfully played by a game Felicity Jones) is a prisoner of the Empire.  There’s a brilliant camera shot in her cell.  As we see her awake and alert on the right, and her humourously snoring alien cellmate on the left, right through the cell door in the middle you can see a stormtrooper pass by and if you look even closer you can see another doing patrol on a lower level.  It’s just a quick moment but it’s an astounding level of subtle craftsmanship.  So much detail covered in one stationary angle, emblematic of the entire film.

While being transported, members of the Rebel Alliance attempt to rescue Jyn who proves herself to be a tough motherfucker.  Not only can she kick ass, she can take a choke slam bump.  Not happy to be apprehended by the rebels, they interrogate her about her father wrongly believing him to be sympathetic to Darth Vader and company.  They want him in custody.

Diego Luna delivers his best performance to date as Cassian, a complex Rebel pilot assigned to accompany Jyn on the fateful mission to locate Galen.  (He learns about the Death Star from a source he mercifully exterminates in an early scene.)  One of his superiors pulls him aside to let know the real assignment:  assassination.  Along for the ride is the very funny K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid who proves to be a strangely lovable character with a surprising independent streak and a fierce babyface loyalty.

During the long journey, our heroes acquire two new allies:  a blind samurai Chirrut (the fantastic Donnie Yen) and his gun-totting companion Baze (Jiang Wen in a good performance), both former Guardians of the Whills.  Once they locate Galen, still held captive by the Galactic Empire, Cassian finds his position hoping to make a perfect snipe.  Chirrut correctly senses he’s not up for the assignment.

It’s hard to watch Director Krannic and not think of David Miscavige, the creepy head of Scientology.  Different accents aside, they look and sometimes sound eerily similar.  They’re both arrogant, abusive authoritarians with delusions of permanent occupation.

In Rogue One, the Death Star isn’t quite ready to be a planet destroyer (still a few kinks to work out) but it can wipe out entire cities like a nuclear bomb.  During one such annihilation, Krannic makes an odd comment, perfectly in line with his monstrous character.

After being separated from her family as a child, Jyn was raised by the eccentric Saw Gerrera (a memorable Forest Whitaker), a man so ravaged by war he’s almost completely bionic.  (Surely, the name is a reference to the legendary Che Guevera.)  They reconnect after so many years to look at a hologram message sent by her dad through a whistleblowing defector, a timid Imperial pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) who Gerrera doesn’t trust.

The bottom line is this.  Galen has planted a secret weakness in the Death Star undetected by the Empire.  This weakness is in the design blueprints.  Unfortunately, they’re located in an archival safe along with all the other well-guarded secrets of the Empire on a planet protected by a huge shield.  I love how they’re all given codenames like the NSA does with its illegal mass surveillance programs.  And yes, one of the Empire’s files has Prism in its name.  Cheeky.

When this information is relayed to the Rebel Council, there is much disagreement about its veracity.  Galen is still viewed with a lot of distrust.  There’s also a lot of hesitation about going to war over it.  But Cassian, Baze, Chirrut and K-2SO are all with Jyn (along with some courageously dissenting Rebel fighters) and a plan is hatched to find the blueprints and somehow send them securely to the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One was written and directed by Gareth Edwards who made the surprisingly good Godzilla in 2014.  He’s managed to achieve something unique here:  a riveting Star Wars movie not so dependent on past characters.  Yes, Darth Vader returns and leaves yet another indelible impression especially in the final act but we only see him in a couple of scenes altogether.  Ditto the obvious CGI rendering of the late, great Peter Cushing as Tarkin, one of the Empire’s ship commanders.  Yeah, you can tell he’s animated but the character still works and you just go with it because you’re so involved with the story.

Led by the versatile Felicity Jones, this new cast of memorable heroes carry the day with their wit, their fierce determination and their absolute reluctance to back down in the face of such stiff blowback.  The movie wouldn’t work if we didn’t care about them so much.  Krannic is so dastardly, you’re eager to see him face direct accountability.  (If only the same thing could happen to David Miscavige.)  Because none of these characters appear in the original trilogy, Edwards has free rein to do what every creator unabashedly loves:  playing God.

The exhilarating action is typical Star Wars, simultaneously fun and tragic.  From hand-to-hand combat to the laser shootouts and the air & space battles, these sequences always keep your eyes glued to the screen.  You never stop being transfixed.  The final act is particularly satisfying, not least of which because it beautifully leads up to the fateful moment when a certain character acquires certain information that will be passed on to a certain droid and seen by a certain future hero.

A seamless passing of the narrative torch.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 17, 2019
5:04 p.m.

Published in: on February 17, 2019 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Daddy’s Home Two

Every performer in show business has an expiration date, that moment when it becomes abundantly clear that their glory days are truly over.  For Mel Gibson, that moment arrives during his first appearance in Daddy’s Home Two.

As he approaches that descending airport escalator, trying to live up to wide-eyed Will Ferrell’s shameless hype and making eyes at cute women as they pass each other in opposite directions, something is very wrong indeed.

It’s Gibson’s harshly weathered face.  He looks demented.  Every time he smiles, he looks even creepier. While meeting the admiring Ferrell and reconnecting with his long disgruntled son, Mark Wahlberg, we wonder what the filmmakers were thinking hiring him for this movie.

Gibson’s character in Daddy’s Home Two, a retired astronaut, is the worst thing about it.  He’s not funny at all.  He’s a despicable womanizer, an unapologetic shit disturber, the essence of unpleasantness especially when he laughs at his own family’s pain which is often.  Shortly after opening his mouth, we immediately hate him.  This may be the closest Gibson’s come to playing himself on screen.

Wahlberg has long despised him for being alternately neglectful and rigid.  As a result, they haven’t made contact in years.  And yet, here he is inviting himself to Wahlberg and Ferrell’s Together Christmas.

In the original Daddy’s Home, Ferrell married lovely Linda Cardellini, Wahlberg’s ex and the mother of his two kids.  Wahlberg was the irresponsible bad boy, Ferrell the squeaky-clean pushover.  After one-upping each other for the affection of their blended family, they eventually reached a truce and became friends.

That truce and friendship carries over into Daddy’s Home Two until Gibson starts openly criticizing their co-parenting arrangement believing it to be unmanly.  Throughout the film, he keeps stirring the pot until the two “co-dads” snap and pull their buried resentments out of their respective “harbours”.

Shortly after meeting Gibson at the airport, Ferrell and Wahlberg also pick up Ferrell’s overly cheerful dad John Lithgow.  Whereas Gibson and Wahlberg express no affection for each other, Ferrell and Lithgow can’t stop kissing each other on the lips.  It’s not funny, it’s weird.  Lithgow takes a liking to the grumpy Gibson but the feeling is not mutual.  It will be by the end of the movie.

The Together Christmas comes about because of Wahlberg’s daughter’s Christmas Pageant speech where she notes the awkwardness of not having a normal holiday with a normal family.  But Ferrell and Wahlberg’s plans are trumped by Gibson who immediately books a cabin for Christmas week on AirBnB.  Joining the dysfunction are Wahlberg’s shoplifting, note-taking writer wife and eventually, her ex, the dad of his own stuck-up, device-addicted stepdaughter, John Cena, whose last-minute, unspoken cameo in Daddy’s Home was the biggest laugh in a film starving for them.  What a mistake to give him lines this time.

Once at the cabin, a jukebox playing Do They Know It’s Christmas? triggers a bad memory for Wahlberg.  He was supposed to sing the Bono part during a school assembly but missed his cue when he spotted Gibson being affectionate with another student’s mom.  The distraction becomes a humiliation.  The Bono mullet, however, is gold.

For some dumb reason, Daddy’s Home Two really wants to be the much worse National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation which explains an obligatory scene where something goes wrong with the Christmas lights (in Lampoon, they wouldn’t turn on; in this movie, they get eaten up by a snowblower) and another where Ferrell is egged on by Gibson to cut down a tree on public land, a felony.

Wahlberg’s bespectacled son who looks a lot like Jacob Tremblay develops a crush but doesn’t know what to do about it.  Ferrell tells him to aim for The Friend Zone.  Gibson encourages him to be a groper.  Guess whose advice he actually takes.

Gibson convinces Wahlberg’s daughter to go on a turkey hunt, much to the horror of Ferrell’s side of the family.  And he insists that the Tremblay clone bowl with unblocked gutters.  I will admit that the kid’s final roll results in a genuinely funny moment.

Near the cabin is a Nativity scene populated with real people in costumed tableaux.  Inevitably, the whole family fills in one night which leads to the expected airing of grievances and a stupidly amusing moment when Ferrell finally loses it on Wahlberg but is too PG with his insult and too cowardly to truly attack him.

For much of its 100-minute running time, Daddy’s Home Two is a dour affair.  Wahlberg’s son gets relentlessly bullied for his crush (which the movie suddenly changes at the end for some reason), Gibson continually criticizes Wahlberg’s own passivity as a parent and step-parent, Lithgow’s secret is exposed in a humiliating fashion thanks to Wahlberg’s improv suggestion and the two young daughters can’t stop being rude snots.

By the time the family goes to the movies (because an avalanche prevents their return trip home), a last-ditch attempt for a happy ending proves very desperate and very convenient.  And yet, at the same time, despite a lack of conviction, it’s also a welcome relief from all the tension and anger. The instant Ferrell starts playing Do They Know It’s Christmas?, I laughed.  I wish I laughed more.

Daddy’s Home Two won’t be remembered with much affection.  It’s too joyless and derivative, too mean and insincere.  Like the original, it’s just not funny enough.  But what it will be remembered for is that hideous Mel Gibson performance, the rightful winner of a Razzie.

Molly Crabapple is right.  Bigotry deteriorates the beautiful.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 16, 2019
7:23 p.m.

Published in: on February 16, 2019 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Availability Of 91st Academy Award Nominated Feature Films On DVD & Blu-ray

No love for Crazy Rich Asians.  Only one technical nomination for A Quiet Place.  And Bradley Cooper didn’t get included for Best Director.

The 91st annual Academy Award nominations were announced this past Tuesday and as usual, what didn’t get recognized generated as much interest as the actual nominees.

But unless you’re one of the snubbed, who gives a shit?  In the long run, beyond giving selected talent a push and squeezing some extra dough out of film fans, these awards don’t really mean anything anyway.  (When Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now don’t snatch Best Picture in both their respective years, the system is rigged.)

Besides, I’m more interested in the quality of these nominated features.  (As of this writing, I’ve only seen A Quiet Place which deserved more than just a Best Sound Editing nod.)  But since I don’t go to the theatre any more, I screen everything now on DVD & Blu-ray.  So, what’s available on video now?  What’s playing in theatres?  What’s streaming on Netflix and Hulu?  And when is everything else hitting the digital formats down the road?

Once again, I’ve compiled a helpful list.  Unless noted otherwise, all dates are for upcoming DVD/Blu-ray releases.  As new information becomes available, as in the past, this list will be updated.

The 91st Academy Awards, which won’t feature Kevin Hart as host, will air Sunday, February 24.  In the meantime, happy screenings, everyone.

At Eternity’s Gate – March 19

Avengers: Infinity War – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs – Now streaming on Netflix

Black Panther – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

BlacKkKlansman – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Bohemian Rhapsody – February 12

Border – February 26

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Digital: February 5, DVD/Blu-ray: February 19

Capernaum – To be determined

Christopher Robin – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Cold War – To be determined

The Favourite – March 5

First Man – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

First Reformed – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Free Solo – March 5

Green Book – March 5

Hale County This Morning, This Evening – To be determined

If Beale Street Could Talk – Now playing in theatres

Incredibles 2 – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Isle Of Dogs – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Mary Poppins Returns – Now playing in theatres

Mary Queen Of Scots – February 26

Minding The Gap – Now streaming on Hulu, DVD/Blu-ray: April 29

Mirai – April 9

Never Look Away – To be determined

Of Fathers And Sons – March 5

A Quiet Place – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Ralph Breaks The Internet – February 26

RBG – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Ready Player One – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Roma – Now streaming on Netflix and playing in theatres

Shoplifters – February 12

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse – March 19

A Star Is Born – February 19

Vice – Now playing in theatres

The Wife – Now available on DVD & Blu-ray

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, January 25, 2019
4:11 a.m.

UPDATE: Can You Ever Forgive Me? will be available digitally on February 5.  Two weeks later, look for it on DVD & Blu-ray.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me because I’ve been sick this past week, The Wife already hit video this past Tuesday.  (You may have seen a new trailer for it on the TV Guide Channel in Canada.)  Of Fathers And Sons and The Favourite will drop March 5.  And finally, although you can see it right now on Hulu, Minding The Gap can be seen on DVD & Blu-ray beginning April 29.  All these dates have been added to the list.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, January 31, 2019
2:28 a.m.

UPDATE 2: Best Animated Feature nominee Mirai will be available on DVD & Blu-ray April 9 while its fellow competitor Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse drops March 19.  The dates have been added to the list.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 11, 2019
4:08 p.m.

Published in: on January 25, 2019 at 4:11 am  Leave a Comment  

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Who is the intended audience for The Hitman’s Bodyguard?  It can’t be comedy fans because there are no laughs.  And action afficiandos have witnessed these same, routine scenarios countless times before with better execution.  Maybe sociopaths who find brutal violence amusing?

As Roger Ebert would put it, this is a Wunza Movie.  One’s a professional killer played by Samuel L. Jackson, one’s a professional security guard played by Ryan Reynolds.  Jackson laughs and says “motherfucker” a lot.  Reynolds is super cautious and always has a plan.

Thanks to a trap laid by Interpol, Jackson gets pinched.  He’s married to the ageless and extremely grumpy Salma Hayek whose own incarceration is never really explained.  My guess is the authorities found her guilty by associating with an assassin, one who justifies his fascism by restricting it to murdering “bad guys”.

Gary Oldman is a ruthless, one-note Belarussian dictator on trial at the International Criminal Court.  Potential witnesses of his brutality keep getting killed off.  Those who do manage to appear are not believed.  Uh huh.

Jackson’s offered a deal.  Testify and Hayek goes free.  He signs without hesitation.  Now he just needs to get to The Hague in one piece.

Enter Reynolds.  He’s still reeling from a two-year-old disaster.  In the film’s opening sequence, he has to escort some Japanese guy and his two wives to a private jet.  (I thought he was some kind of polyamorous politician but no.)  All goes smoothly until the guy gets popped sitting on the plane through a very small passenger window.

Reynolds wrongly blames his ex-girlfriend Elodie Yung, a French Interpol operative.  He told her who he was protecting (a first for him) so naturally he presumed she blabbed to someone she shouldn’t have which she’s always denied.  They’ve been estranged ever since.

But then she calls him out of the blue.  Jackson is supposed to be transported to The Hague but of course the initial trip goes horribly wrong and now Yung has stashed him in an nearby safe house.  With Interpol wondering what unauthorized party is staying there and an internal traitor helping Oldman, she orders an initially recalcitrant Reynolds to get his ass to Europe and become Jackson’s personal escort.

Even before Jackson gets in the van during the original, failed transport (an incident even he expects to happen), you already know who the Interpol mole is.  The guy looks incredibly guilty.  It also doesn’t help that he’s played villains throughout his entire career.  Perhaps sensing the pointlessness of keeping his identity a secret for very long, the movie reveals his heel turn right after you figure it out.

Oldman has a very good reason for wanting Jackson eliminated.  He has photographic evidence of him and his goons murdering innocent civilians.  If Jackson doesn’t arrive in court by a certain day and time, Oldman goes free and resumes being a powerful authoritarian.  Setting such a tight, arbitrary deadline (27 hours) is obviously a phony thriller convention to raise the stakes.  The real ICC, flawed as it is, would not be so foolishly impatient.  They don’t move at the speed at light.

The second Reynolds lays eyes on Jackson at the safe house, it’s go time.  It turns out they have a long, ugly history which can only mean one thing: endless, unfunny bickering.

With Oldman’s seemingly endless supply of mercenaries hunting them down wherever they go (how come they weren’t arrested as well?), they alternate between sparring with each other and blasting and beating their enemies.  This all grows tiresome very quickly.

These action scenes are not comical, even though certain moments are surely played that way (not successfully, it should be pointed out).  But they are most definitely absurd.  Despite being constantly shot at with a flurry of bullets for most of the movie (often with too many witnesses around), Jackson only gets hit once in the leg.  And yet, not that long afterwards, this middle-aged man can still make a giant leap without further aggravating his injury.  The only consequence for the initial hit is a limp.  He can only survive this long because the villains have implausibly terrible aim.

After a long, drawnout chase scene in the second hour, Reynolds gets temporarily kidnapped and tortured.  I was surprised I didn’t laugh when he said the CIA doesn’t do this anymore.  I don’t think he meant it as a punchline, although it sounds like one.

For a formula action comedy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is too long.  God knows it’s overly familiar.  Will Jackson make it to The Hague before the dumb deadline passes?  Will Reynolds finally admit he was wrong and make up with Yung?  Will he make some kind of peace with Jackson despite arguing with him the entire movie?  Will Oldman try a ridiculously insane hail mary if Jackson arrives as scheduled?

If you’ve seen a movie before, you already know the correct answers.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, January 17, 2019
7:56 p.m.

Published in: on January 17, 2019 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  


Cursing is catharsis, prohibitive thoughts no longer restrained.  Raw expression without the poetic varnish.  Fearlessness paroled from a mental prison.  But as rap music has proven for decades, cursing is poetry, the natural flow of anger and lust, its own rhythm of uncontained passion.


Cursing can also be funny and truthful.  You would never know it from watching Swearnet.


What a misguided film this is.  Repugnant characters appear in every frame and curse repeatedly for no real reason other than to break a meaningless record.  No film apparently has contained more “dirty words” than this one.  If only it had the most laughs.


The stars of Trailer Park Boys (Mike Smith, John Paul Tremblay and Robb Wells) play fictional versions of themselves, unlikely TV icons trapped in a paradox.  They want to continue playing Bubbles, Julian and Ricky but can’t because they don’t own the rights to the characters.  And they can’t move on to other projects because they’re only seen as those characters.


One of their former co-stars John Dunsworth (Mr. Lahey) invites them to appear on his talk show.  Before it begins, they plead with him not to bring up Trailer Park Boys.  It’s all he wants to talk about.  Irritated and frustrated, they walk off the set in mid-broadcast.


The boys take a meeting with a couple of executives at a Canadian TV network.  They pitch a couple of show ideas: one about car repair and a cooking program with a deliberately misspelled curse word in the title.  Both are soundly rejected.  The executives would rather see new episodes of Trailer Park Boys but with limited cursing.  Smith gets angry and stupidly attacks one of them.


While in jail, he hits upon an idea.  What if the boys started their own Internet site where they could record themselves cursing as much as they’d like and charge five-dollar monthly subscriptions?  Call it Swearnet.   Wells and Tremblay are in.


But they don’t have the greatest equipment.  So Smith contacts a shady loan shark and acquires $20000.   (Are these TV stars really that hard up for cash?)  The loan shark, who is white, is impatient.  You don’t pay quickly enough, his half-brother (a Black, silent little person half his height) will burn your shit.


The Swearnet broadcasts are so bad it’s hard to believe they would attract free visitors, let alone paying customers.  First, the boys try newscasting.  Then, they spot an irate Sebastian Bach at a hotel and interview him on the spot.  He’s been having an on/off affair with Wells’ wife, a woman so horrible and controlling, even the temperamental Bach eventually grows tired of her.  She interrupts the earlier newscast to yell at Wells for lying about playing hockey.  We never see her in a good mood.


Tremblay’s sexually charged marriage to a German bodybuilder is much happier.  Meanwhile, Smith is a womanizing sleaze who throws daily drunken orgies at his house.  (One guest gets taken away in an ambulance.)  In the aftermath of one accusation of sexual harassment against him from former co-star Lucy Decouture, this now blurs the line between fiction and reality uncomfortably.


Pat Roach, who played Mr. Lahey’s big-bellied shirtless companion on Trailer Park Boys, is talked into becoming Swearnet’s annoying mascot, Swearman.  Plying him with booze while wearing a masked superhero costume, he becomes a cursing fiend embarrassing himself out in public.


The boys decide to do a live broadcast during the finals of the World Junior hockey tournament from a Skybox.  Swearman’s antics gain him the kind of notoriety no one should ask for.  Let’s just say the man is shameless.


Many male characters in Swearnet are so obsessed with penises you’re surprised none of them are gay.  In a tedious subplot, Wells and Tremblay get disqualified from a race for being high on LSD.  The only way they can be reinstated for the second leg is if Smith gives the owner, an one-eyed old man named Trigger, a hand job.  Already in hot water with his friends for the ill-advised, unpaid loan, among other transgressions, Swearnet has another exclusive video.  Is coercion funny?


Speaking of the race, what are Carrot Top and Tom Green doing in this movie?  During a test lap, the now freakishly muscled prop comic has a full-fledged freakout while paired with Tremblay in a scene that makes absolutely no sense.  How hard is it to read a carefully prepared map?  (Tremblay’s not even driving that fast.)  The Freddy Got Fingered creator is only interested in selling keychains.  What happened to his career?


The soulless Swearnet wants to be real and outrageous with its relentless expletives but ends up being numbingly dull and homophobic.  Imagine being cornered by a drunken ranter who never shuts up or lets you go.  Imagine being subjected to that for nearly two hours non-stop.

I’m reminded of the classic scene in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.  You know the one.  A fed-up Steve Martin curses out Edie McClurg after not being able to find his rental car.  It’s a brilliant moment I’ve loved for decades, so funny and so truthful.  There was a purpose to his cursing, not just a freeing of his anger but a strong emphasis of it.  You related to his powerlessness.

The characters in Swearnet curse all the time even when they’re not enraged.  Why?  What’s the point?  They’re not tough-talking mobsters, they’re not rough-and-tumble hockey players trying to win a championship.  They’re just Canadian actors.  And not very good ones, either.  (The Trailer Park Boys film trilogy is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.  Not.  One.  Laugh.)


The fictional versions of Smith, Tremblay and Wells argue with each other so often and so intensely, one wonders why they’re even friends outside of work.  You don’t feel the love at all.  You only sense contractual obligation, a professional threesome who can’t split apart no matter what.

In the end, the most shocking thing about Swearnet isn’t the excessive cursing, the gross homophobia or even the complete lack of laughs.  No, what’s most shocking is that Guns N’ Roses contributed two of its best songs to the soundtrack.  They must’ve been hard up for cash, too.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, January 13, 2019
7:53 p.m.

Published in: on January 13, 2019 at 7:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

They forgot about WrestleMania V.

On April 5, 1989, Morton Downey Jr., the pugnacious talk show shot, stepped into the ring at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  He was there to be interviewed by Rowdy Roddy Piper, the host of his own chat segment, Piper’s Pit.  Joining them was another WWF interviewer, Brother Love, the red-faced evangelist.

Piper had originally retired after his match with Adrian Adonis at WrestleMania III to pursue an acting career in Hollywood.  But after two years away from the squared circle, he was back, leaner and with longer hair.

During Piper’s absence, Downey had become a meteoric Television figure.  His New Jersey-based program, The Morton Downey Jr. Show, was nationally syndicated within months.  The second-generation star acted and sounded like a heel, even though he was frequently cheered on by his reliably rabid audience.  He was the original Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Downey would deliberately book guests he could antagonize, usually men and women who defended their liberal positions in the face of a vocally hostile opposition (including a young Gloria Allred).  But occasionally he would verbally spar with equally undeterred conservatives like Ron Paul.

When Piper made his highly anticipated return to Trump Plaza to interview Downey and Brother Love, he was given a warm reception.  The Rowdy One had left the WWF as a babyface and would remain so for many years.  After quickly humiliating the departing evangelist (who made the mistake of wearing a kilt and doing a mocking imitation), Piper moved on to Downey.

There had only been one time in his career that Downey himself had been bested by another loudmouth.  In the mid-80s, he had appeared on Wally George’s infamous talk show.  The white-haired host questioned Downey’s authenticity as a conservative.  Remarkably, Downey admitted he was as phony as George who eventually had security guards physically remove his guest from the set.

Downey learned a valuable lesson that day, one he had curiously forgotten by the time he arrived at Trump Plaza.

At WrestleMania V, Downey endeared himself to Piper by continually blowing smoke in his face as he repeatedly lit and puffed on his cigarettes.  After a short interview, The Rowdy One had enough.  With Downey’s back turned, Piper revealed a fire extinguisher hidden under a plaid-decorated stool.  He told “Mr. Downey” to turn around.  After he obliged, Piper blasted him.  The New York tough guy fell to the mat and Piper kept spraying.  In an instant, Piper extinguished Downey’s heat.

Triumphant, Piper left the ring with a big, mischievious grin.  He had gotten the better of a man who was not accustomed to looking like a loser in public.  Downey should’ve remembered what he discovered about his Wally George experience.  The host always wins.

A few months later, Downey’s talk show would be cancelled due to declining ratings.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie excludes this entire incident which is an enormous oversight.  In my view, it played a major role in the end of Downey’s lightning fast run.

But it wasn’t the only reason he wasn’t unable to maintain his success.

Evocateur bounces back and forth to reveal a man with ongoing demons.  His father was a famous singer and movie star from the thirties who attended JFK’s inauguration in 1961.  (He had a summer home very close to Ted Kennedy.)  Downey’s parents had a bitter divorce.  Dad got custody and prevented his son from ever contacting his mom.  She drank herself to death.

When he had his TV show, a fan sent him an old copy of Time Magazine with his dad on the cover.  As one of his producers remembers, Downey flipped out upon seeing it.  He tore it apart, reducing it to confetti.

Determined to be more famous than his dad, Downey appeared on a 1958 episode of Jukebox Jury, a show where a panel determines the hit potential of songs from up-and-coming artists.  Downey’s dad had a rather high, old-timey voice while Junior’s was deeper.  In this scenario, Downey was clearly Frank Sinatra Jr.

The old-schooled Downey never had the stuff to become a pop star in an era of mass transition, although you wouldn’t know it from the two relatives who vouched for him on Jukebox Jury.  (The audience likely didn’t know their blatant conflict of interest.)  Curiously, Dean Martin had praise for him but felt he was shortchanged by his producers.  Too much echo on your voice, dawg.

Unbowed, Downey would persist.  Many years later, he recorded another single with a friend.  They toured radio stations hoping to get it played.  One station DJ thought Downey was “a character and a half”.  He hired him to do Top 40 radio in the morning.

Downey started taking calls and arguing with listeners.  That got him the gig on WWOR, the same TV channel that would later hire Howard Stern, a bitter rivalry that also goes uncovered.

When he debuted on October 11, 1987, it had been two decades since anyone had seen anything like this on American Television.  Downey’s inspiration was Joe Pyne, another beligerent right-wing figure who didn’t hold back against his own political opponents during his many shows in the fifties and sixties.  Chairs were thrown and guests walked off in disgust.  Downey pushed things on his show even further.

Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere for guests (The Washington Post’s Tom Shales described Downey’s program as “a talk show with a hockey audience”), big names would still bravely appear.  The most infamous was probably Al Sharpton.

At the time, the longtime activist stupidly vouched for Tawana Brawley, the horribly abused Black teenager who claimed she was kidnapped and raped by several white men, mostly cops.  Sharpton made numerous appearances on Downey’s show advocating on her behalf.  (He was famously shoved off his chair by a fellow guest in a moment that made the cover of the New York Post.)  In a previously unseen clip that was captured by the cameras while the show was on a commercial break, Sharpton flips out on an audience member, smearing them with a homophobic slur.  Despite their on-air arguing, Downey was friendly with the reverend off-the-air.

During an actual broadcast, in a scene that reminded me of Jesse Ventura and Roddy Piper promising to deliver Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan respectively on a future Piper’s Pit to set up the main event of WrestleMania III, Downey claims he’ll produce one of the accused and Sharpton promises to bring on Brawley.

Needless to say, she never appears (Downey’s guest was never contacted) and the soon-to-be-discredited Sharpton (later to be successfully sued for defamation) pretends he never made such a commitment in the first place.

When a grand jury concludes that the whole thing was bullshit, support for Brawley instantly dissipates.  (While she was never kidnapped or assaulted, she had been continually beaten and threatened by her stepfather for years.  Had Sharpton done his homework this is where his advocacy could’ve made a difference.)  But Downey was clearly inspired.

After an infamous live event where he tangled with skinheads (he insults the partner of one using an old roast line), Downey is conveniently discovered in the bathroom in a dishevelled state by a good friend and musical collaborator.  His hair cut strangely, his face & ripped clothing both graffittied.

The incident is met with nothing but severe skepticism.  (Those are the worst looking swastikas I’ve ever seen.)  A former producer even comes forward to claim that Downey had always wanted to do a publicity stunt like this.  (Downey publicly smeared him as a cokehead.)  And indeed, near the end of Evocateur, we get the truth.  The whole thing was staged.  The scissors and marker were purchased at a 7/11.

But Downey convinced himself everything he said was true which allowed him to beat a lie detector test proving yet again the uselessness of those machines.  Sociopaths don’t sweat.

The perception at the time was that Downey, who stubbornly maintained on Donohue that he was a true victim, was desperate to save his sinking talk show.  Plus, he had a new album of music coming out.  (It went Gold despite later being named by one publication as the worst album of the eighties.)  But his collaborator and close friend, the one who discovered him in the bathroom, believes he wanted his fourth wife, who was more than 30 years younger than the middle-aged broadcaster, “to feel sorry for him”.  She never left his side despite vowing to leave him if he was in fact lying.

As his stock rises instantaneously after decades of struggle, Downey falls into the familiar traps of fame.  He buys a bunch of overpriced junk.  There are many meaningless paramours, including sex workers he otherwise abused on his show, which destroys his third marriage.  He hires some of them to work for him which leads to rampant sexual harassment.  He nearly beats his third wife in a limo but is stopped by a co-worker.  He parts company with one producer as the ratings start to fall.  When an Inside Edition journalist asks him a question he doesn’t like, he goes ballistic in a truly scary and ultimately embarrassing display of hubris.

When The Morton Downey Jr. Show is cancelled in July 1989 (the final episode aired in September), Downey wouldn’t completely disappear.  The movie doesn’t mention that he acted in numerous movies and TV programs or that he attempted numerous talk show comebacks, one of which abandoned his in-your-face persona for more civil conversations.

Instead, we jump to a much sadder Downey seven years later when he is first diagnosed with lung cancer.  Nothing humbled him more.  For the last five years of his life, Downey mostly renounced his worst moments and reversed himself on cigarettes.  We see him testify before Congress about how much he regrets getting hooked on nicotine (he started when he was 13) and inspiring American youth to do the same.  It’s a stunning turnaround.

Evocateur is a fascinatingly flawed documentary about a fascinatingly flawed political icon.  Did you know Downey published a book of poetry after Robert Kennedy’s assassination?  I sure didn’t.  Snippets of a few poems are read by competitors like Sally Jessy Raphael and fans like David Letterman contributor Chris Elliott who did a hilarious send-up of Downey on a 1988 episode of Late Night.  Published in 1969, the lines shared are eerily prescient about Downey’s own future in the public eye.  He didn’t heed his own warnings.

The movie argues that Downey wasn’t a true conservative and despite being a Ted Kennedy supporter as a younger man, he wasn’t much of a liberal, either.  He simply espoused views that would provoke a two-pronged reaction:  it would infuriate his opponents and invigorate his supporters, a reliable template adopted by outspoken conservatives ever since.  In the Reagan eighties, he became a staunch opponent of abortion and a major champion of the drug war.  At the same time, he argued with Alan Dershowitz about Apartheid Israel and railed against other white supremacists.

There’s a curious snippet from his TV show where he gets into it with some nut who doesn’t think AIDS is transmitted sexually and argues for patients to be quarantined.  According to Wikipedia, Downey had a gay brother who contracted the disease.  He even had him as a guest on his show.  Why wasn’t this included in the movie?

In a very short period of time, despite being a national hit, Downey found it difficult to keep booking well-known guests.  It turned out people didn’t like being screamed at by a maniac who, despite his remarkable memory, had a massive credibility problem.  That leads to a very funny moment where his entire TV audience stands while an unknown double amputee plays the national anthem on a keyboard with her tongue.

Like Andrew Dice Clay shortly thereafter, Downey became a victim of his own success.  As he perfected his right-wing “blue collar hero” schtick (despite being a lifelong child of liberal white privilege), he simultaneously alienated millions with his often needlessly bellicose and flat-out misguided rhetoric.  American stations that carried his inflammatory show were constantly worried about losing sponsors which ultimately happened.  His staff was often worried about his sanity.  MTV’s former founder, Bob Pittman, regrets ever giving Downey a push.  He is convinced the man would’ve had a happier life if he never took the WWOR job.

In between new interviews and archival footage are some very sharp animated sequences depicting stories that weren’t captured on tape.  In a scene meant to resemble a Nazi rally, Downey attends a live event attracting as many as 5000 people.  But when he takes to the stage, instead of feeding them the red meat they’re grown accustomed to swallowing, he brags about fucking his much younger fourth wife.  It didn’t go over so well.

In the end, what killed Downey’s career wasn’t liberalism or being replaced by bigger, less unmanageable conservative talents.  It was his false sense of invincibility.  For decades, he was almost never without a cigarette in his mouth.  By 1996, it finally caught up to him.  As a result, he lost a lung and a lot of weight.  But he also gained perspective and completely calmed down.

Downey didn’t completely renounce his claim to fame but he surely regretted inspiring his younger fans to follow his lead.  In his remaining years he reached out to people he sparred with like Dershowitz who recounts a weak-voiced Downey thanking him for complimenting his legacy, a rare occurrence from a “liberal”.  On Larry King, he acknowledged receiving a letter of support from Ted Kennedy and openly wept when the host told him he would live long enough to see his youngest daughter grow up.  (Downey would die before she turned eight.  One of his oldest adult daughters from a previous marriage was there in the hospital during his final week.)

All throughout the entertaining Evocateur, as we relive memorable moments from The Morton Downey Jr. Show, we are mesmerized by the host’s ability to maintain control despite often being wrong.  No one is able to have the last word but him.  He is unafraid to invade the personal spaces of guests like the stripper he literally thrusts against so she’ll sit back down.  (In a previous moment, he was enjoying her topless dancing.)  The louder and more confident the insult, the more raucous the response from his fiercely loyal studio audience.

Part prosecuting attorney, part roaster, part showman and part psychologist, Downey understood his role perfectly.  To his highly attentive conservative following, he was a voice of reason in an unreasonable world, a welcome stream of black-and-white “thinking” against an infuriating ocean of incomprehensible grey.  Like Donald Trump today, his resentments matched his audience’s.  To everybody else, there was something seriously wrong with him.

At the end of the movie after The Today Show’s Bryant Gumbel asks whether Downey is a flash in the pan or the start of a new wave, we don’t hear the answer.

We don’t have to.  Decades after the question was originally posed, based on everything that has happened since, we already know.  The host always wins.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
7:43 p.m.

Published in: on January 9, 2019 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Decline Of Western Civilization & The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

The LA hardcore scene in the late 70s and the LA glam metal scene in the late 80s had a lot in common, much of it sad and disturbing.

Punk figures like Darby Crash, the doomed frontman for The Germs, and dimwitted headbangers like Chris Holmes, the WASP guitarist, regularly obliterated themselves with drugs and alcohol not caring at all for the consequences.  Sobriety was too unbearable.

Both scenes had a hostility towards women.  Punks beat them up.  With some exceptions, metal musicians mocked and questioned their audacity to play alongside them, that is when they weren’t exploiting them for sex or depending on them for basic necessities.

Both rebelled against the tedious status quo out of boredom and determination.  Both had ravenously passionate fans who slam danced and stage dived and packed clubs to see their up-and-coming favourites again and again.  Both featured a slew of young, hungry bands just barely scrapping by.  With nothing to lose and no real alternative job prospects, it was either cultural nirvana or the deserts of obscurity.

But that’s where the similiarities end.  LA punks were the better musicians even if they rarely showcased any instrumental mastery.  They also covered topics the metal guys would laugh at like mental health and left-wing politics.  (A hair metal band would rather burn a Soviet flag than defend communism.)  With notable exceptions, punks bemoaned their sexual isolation, their lack of success bonding with women, a precursor to the misguided incel movement.  On the contrary, hair metal groups had an abundance of groupie conquests to brag about in their lyrics.  The more degrading and submissive the experience, the better.

Glam metal bands put more effort into their ironically feminine presentations than they ever did into their songs.  “Outrageous” showmanship was more important than connecting emotionally with an audience.  (It’s easier to wear assless chaps than say something profound about the human condition.)  Then again, fearless punks like Crash, took their cues from Iggy Pop and Sid Vicious.  Despite having next to no budget and even less talent, they were the real showstoppers.

Before she directed the hilarious Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris covered both of these curious rock movements in two celebrated documentaries.  The Decline Of Western Civilization covers hardcore while its more famous sequel, The Metal Years, infiltrates the Sunset Strip.  Only one has held up all these decades later.  The other is too depressing and repetitive.

Released in 1981, the original Decline follows several notable bands of the era at the end of 1979 and for almost half of 1980.  Unlike the forgettables in The Metal Years, many of the LA hardcore outfits profiled have since become highly regarded cult legends.

Consider the notorious Fear.  Clearly students of Iggy and The Doors’ Jim Morrison, they spend way more time deliberately antagonizing their live audiences than actually playing to them.  Their heat-seeking songs are so tight and lightning quick.  Unfortunately, their heel antics are extremely gross and offensive.  When they’re not being horrifically homophobic or making painfully unfunny jokes (one audience member shouts out the bad punchlines before the guitarist does), they’re goading fans near the front of the stage to fight them.

After a brief spitting war, one ballsy lady takes the bait, charging after Fear’s frontman Lee Ving.  He does not turn the other cheek.  Thank God for security.  It’s a fascinating car crash in real time.

The best of these bands is clearly X, led by then-couple John Doe and Siouxie Sioux doppelganger Exene Cervenka.  Thanks to their multi-talented lead guitarist Billy Zoom, who has played so many different types of music and instruments since he was 6, there are welcome strains of rockabilly in their presentation which greatly differentiates them from their peers.  For a scene filled with unrelenting dread and rage, Zoom is the only one having fun on stage.  He can’t stop smiling.  Oddly, he looks like a young Jigsaw.

The members of X are in a slightly higher economic class than the members of Black Flag who live in absolute squalor.  Their frontman gives us a brief tour of their extremely confined quarters where they also rehearse.  They live in an abandoned church that charges only $16 a month for room rentals, a bargain basement value for a dump.  Their walls are completely covered in spray paint.  One guy literally sleeps on a shelf closet.  An actual bedroom is the size of a bathroom.  Perhaps out of gallows humour, they have a few nooses dangling from the ceiling.  I wonder how they decorated for Christmas.

There’s an enormous elephant in the room at various points in The Decline Of Western Civilization that goes disappointingly unmentioned by Spheeris or any of her interview subjects.  Black Flag has a revealing song called White Minority.  It sounds like it was written by a Men’s Rights Activist or a Nazi.  It should be pointed out that their lead singer isn’t Henry Rollins.  He hadn’t joined the band just yet.

No. The guy who sings it is Ron Reyes, who was born in Puerto Rico.  The sentiments of the track just linger uncomfortably without any follow-up conversation.

Then there’s all the Nazi symbolism.  Someone draws a swastika on Darby Crash’s back.  Meanwhile, he’s wearing an eagle cross necklace.  A fan on crutches has a Nazi armband on his leg cast.

A skinhead fan talks about being chased by “niggers”.  Crash describes a dead Mexican as a “wetback”.  An out there Catholic Discipline track about a guy in love with an actual Barbie doll that he uses as a sexual aide describes a moment where he gets on a bus with it in his pocket and purposefully avoids sitting next to Black passengers.

What’s with all the white supremacy?  Spheeris never asks and the topic never comes up in conversation.  A serious abdication of her duty as a documentarian and a journalist, especially when you consider what happened to her dad.

The Alice Bag Band, whose lead singer looks uncannily like a short-haired Lady Gaga, are almost as good as X.  Before her band picks up the pace, the audience’s interaction with each other is actually friendly and mostly cordial.  No slam dancing.  Only one bird is flipped.  She doesn’t put needless heat on herself by trashing the crowd which still doesn’t stop an overeager audience member from trying to get to her on stage.

Contrast all this with the pretentious glam metal acts in The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years who are far less interesting or honest.  Or, at times, even coherent.  (God knows they’re not funny, either, intentionally or otherwise.)

Say what you will about Darby Crash (who committed suicide before the first film’s release), but I understood everything he said and appreciated his soft-spoken candor.  Good luck figuring out what Poison’s burnout guitarist C.C. Deville is trying to say sometimes, though.  The rest of the time he’s full of shit like a lot of these dicks.

The big problem with The Metal Years is that most of the newbie bands who get to play live aren’t good at all (which explains why there’s constant cutting during the performances) and when you hear them talk, they’re all sleazy bores which greatly explains why their only claim to fame is appearing in this surprisingly underwhelming movie.  Fear, X, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks have all been covered by many prominent performers.  When’s the last time you heard a decent Seduce cover?

Far too much time is focused on mundane superficialities like the badly dated appearance of glam metal musicians, especially their make-up and those absurdly poofy haircuts.  And how they attracted the wrong kind of attention.  These terrible bands have been relentlessly mocked for so long that we’ve all run out of original jokes.  At this point, they’re beyond self-parody.

Watching them act so hopeful about their nonexistent future success doesn’t inspire ridicule, just relief they never made it.  The movie occasionally uses sound effects for comic emphasis.  The problem is there are no jokes to laugh at.

At the start of the 80s, the scene was thriving as bands like Motley Crue jumped off the stage at the crammed Whiskey A Go-Go right into the startled homes of America through non-stop airplay on MTV.  By the time Spheeris catches up with the new crop of crap starting in August 1987 right through until February 1988, it’s in a considerable state of decline which goes politely unmentioned, although there is a brief discussion about the new generation ripping off the old.  And, of course, the frequent interruption of live performances.  It should be noted that none of this happens to the hardcore bands in The Decline Of Western Civilization.

Many of the singers either sound like Ronnie James Dio or Axl Rose who was still many months away from becoming a household name in his own right.  (He sings with Alice Cooper over the end credits but doesn’t otherwise appear.)  None of the bands stand out as particularly thoughtful or exciting, another undeniable fact that no one wants to acknowledge.  One band’s idea of being outrageous is doing an average Steppenwolf cover and emptying a big bag of popcorn into the front rows.

The decidedly unglamourous Megadeth, the only talented new group briefly interviewed who actually went on to deserved commercial and critical success, bullshit you almost as much as the glam glidiots, unfortunately.  Nevertheless, the band delivers the only entertaining live performance here.

Spheeris doesn’t just interview wannabes, thank God.  She also chats amiably with legends like Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead (who actually was the subject of a fine 2-hour doc), Aerosmith’s “toxic twins”, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, a fully made-up Alice Cooper and of course, Ozzy Osbourne.  (By the way, the famous scene where he can’t properly pour a glass of orange juice wasn’t real.  Not cool to make him look bad like that.)  He’s far more honest and lucid than CC Deville, or at least he was during filming.  These days, you need the closed captioning.

If only the movie had strictly focused on them.  Their once chaotic lives and memorable careers are filled with dangerous life lessons this younger generation of metallers should’ve heeded, with the exception of one.  No, it’s a really bad idea to encourage these crummy bands to keep going.  No, they will not make it. There will be casualties and burnouts, lots of them.  On the contrary, when asked what he would say to a kid who wants to be a rock star, Mustaine offers a succinct, “Don’t.”  It’s the smartest thing he says in the entire film.

Paul Stanley, famously surrounded by three female admirers who look like they were hired to make him look more desirable, acts like a spoiled, obnoxious king in the royal bedroom as he, like Alice Cooper, unpersuasively asserts that glam metal saved rock ‘n’ roll in the 1980s.  (College bands deserve that credit.) Three years after this film’s release, the more authentic Seattle bands, many of them inspired by Black Flag and X, would kick them all off the charts.  Glam metal didn’t save shit.  In fact, it delayed the emergence of better music.

The Metal Years is a shockingly gloomy watch, not at all the comedic cult film I was expecting.  (I’d seen bits and pieces over the years but never the whole thing from start to finish.  What a difference that makes.)  The only genuinely funny moment involves three mooning fans in the opening credits which says it all.  A second viewing solidified my darkened mood.

It’s not enjoyable watching WASP’s Chris Holmes, in the film’s most surreal sequence, guzzling bottle after bottle of vodka, sometimes dunking it on his stupid face, while lounging unashamedly in his swimming pool as his horrified, stoic mother watches on helplessly.  (What the hell is she doing there?)  Like a lot of these shitheads, he proclaims he’s living his best life.  Then, the truth comes out.  He wishes he was less famous.  He’d rather be “broke and happy” then “rich and sad”.  I’d rather listen to someone less pathetic.  Spheeris tries to understand why he’s put himself in this state but it’s a waste of time.

Negative comments like that inspire derision by the ever charmless Gene Simmons, himself a giant knob, who is much wiser about avoiding the deathtrap of drugs than he ever is at respecting women.  (In one scene, he’s easily distracted by a woman in lingerie which looks like another staged moment.)

Surprisingly, other musicians are more spiteful.  One trucker hat-wearing singer calls groupies “fleas and ticks”. “Slut” shaming abounds.  When asked if he’s ever fallen in love with a fan or could even imagine such a scenario, Stanley claims he couldn’t because he doesn’t want sloppy seconds.  A wannabe recalls him saying you can’t have women in your life if you want to make it.  At least Tyler and Perry are respectful.

A dirty old club owner runs a “dance contest” which consists of young women gyrating around for a measly thousand bucks, a sash, and a crown.  Their moves aren’t sexy and the whole thing is lame.  Even one of the glam rock guys, who serves as a judge, wonders what it has to do with heavy metal.

Spheeris asks some women, all of whom play in their own hard rock bands, if they can rock as hard as the men.  Only one says it hasn’t been achieved yet.  (Have they not heard of Lita Ford or Canada’s Lee Aaron?)  Unfortunately, unlike the earlier hardcore film, no female-led acts appear in the concert footage which defeats the purpose of even asking the question in the first place.  God knows they couldn’t have been any worse than the men.  However, they are just as delusional.

Unlike its punk predecessor, The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II feels very impatient with its constant preference for quick, successive soundbites over longer, deeper conversations and its bad habit of cutting in and out of mostly pedestrian live performances.  Also, there are too many uninspired talking heads that over time blend into each other with their derivative rhetoric.

I’m not a big fan of having someone start to tell a story, then cut to a different person starting a different story, then another doing the same, before cutting back to the first person, then the second, then the third, until all the stories are finished.  I’ve never seen a film with such a short attention span.

The original film had a solid formula.  Each band gets their own separate segment even though none of the members of the Circle Jerks, Fear or the Alice Bag Band, who all play live, are interviewed which isn’t explained.  God knows what the contemptible Lee Ving would’ve had to say on camera off-stage.  There’s even time allotted for fan comments which are shot in black and white, some more alarming than others.  (Germs guitarist Pat Smear, now married with children, was such a misogynistic prick as a kid.)

The Metal Years mostly maintains that approach but then crams in rapid-shot responses by unrelated talking heads in between making the film feel distracted and annoyed by its own agenda.  You don’t have time to digest anything substantial because another thought arrives just as quickly as the last one while we whip through the usual subjects like drugs, touring, and sex without any further enlightenment.  Because these glam metal goons all think and act alike, the effect is monotonous.  (Only the veterans are worth paying attention to, some of the time.)  Like the music, little of what they say is real or revealing.

The fans are only slightly more intelligent.  The music is bad, the musicians even worse.  There’s nothing fun about their lives, even when they brag about frequent group sex.  It all feels so empty, the opposite of a good time.  Spheeris rarely makes a verbal judgment although her interview with Chris Holmes, the drunken WASP guitarist, feels more like an unproductive shrink session than a neutral interaction.  It’s more shocking that the man is still alive decades later.

Ironically, despite singing about pain and self-destruction so often, there are more genuine laughs to be found from the unexpectedly cheerful hardcore bands in The Decline Of Western Civilization.  They may be dirt poor and have ugly social views on certain subjects but the otherwise affable members of Black Flag and X like each other enough to joke around during casual on-screen conversations which makes us laugh, as well.

In a moment of unexpected domestic bliss, Darby Crash and his live-in girlfriend converse so easily and comfortably while making and eating breakfast, despite the morbid recounting of the painter story.  (How come we don’t see Ozzy’s family when he’s making the same meal?)  These ordinary scenes humanize these memorable, seriously flawed characters in ways you would never see in the more skeptical mainstream media, that is, when they were even covered at all.  In those rare instances, they would otherwise be ruthlessly demonized as one-dimensional monsters, a threat to all that is well and good.

No one is more fascinating than the hippie-hating Kickboy Face.  Imagine Keith Richards with a French accent.  Besides fronting Catholic Discipline, he writes for the shortlived but highly influential Slash Magazine which led to the equally important Slash Records, a crucial lifeline for the LA hardcore scene.

The hair metal bands in Part II, however, reinforce all the moronic stereotypes of rock stars.  The members of Poison are the only ones who attempt self-deprecation but they fail miserably.  The banter feels forced and insincere.  There’s far too many cringy dick jokes and sex jokes as these clueless douchenozzles embarrass themselves again and again.  They puff themselves up so much they don’t even need fluffers.  They’re full of enough hot air.  Once in a while, you sense their insecurity but the phony façade they project mostly remains intact.

It says a lot that the almost non-singing, highly inebriated Darby Crash (his frustrated former manager compares him to a three-year-old), who seems to resent having to use a microphone and growls rather than enunciates while fronting The Germs, is a more intriguing performer and figure than all the hair metal bands in Part II put together.  It also seems grossly unfair that his band had to be shot on a soundstage (because no club would book them again) while all these glam goons have no trouble stinking up every club they ever played for.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, January 4, 2019
3:12 a.m.

Published in: on January 4, 2019 at 3:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Remembering 2018, My Thirteenth Year Of Blogging (Part Two)

For years, I thought I had properly ejected my Kingston flash drive.  Any time I would get that message that files were in use, I clicked past the warning and it always said it was safe to remove.  Then I would pull it out.

As I found out the hard way, it was never safe to remove your flash drive in this manner.  My dumb 7-year mistake caught up with me big time when I discovered one memorable winter night all my files had been corrupted and couldn’t be retrieved.  This was scarier than any horror film I’d seen this year.  All that writing, some pictures, some uninstalled programs, important writing research, gone.

Or so I thought.  Thanks to a couple of free online data retriever programs, most of the writing and a few photos but none of the other stuff was safely recovered and saved again.  Phew!  I’m hoping at some point to retrieve more of my lost data, if possible.

So, what was the problem?  Whenever I open a Word file and then close it, Windows keeps the program active.  All I had to do was close a particular process that makes this happen, then click to eject which doesn’t produce a warning at all.  It only says you can now remove your device no problem.

In summary, you can’t safely eject your flash drive if the CVH-EXE *32 process is still active.  Close that before you proceed.  Hard lesson learned.

But that wasn’t my most embarrassing personal moment.

Just days before I worked my eighth Canadian election in early June, my second as an information assistant, I was trying to kill a flying black bug that had landed high up on my bedroom wall.  I couldn’t reach it from where I stood so I took this green step stool and placed it on this step that divides my two rooms in my family’s house.  When I climbed up to the top, I didn’t realize how unsturdy it was.  In a matter of seconds, the chair went one way and I landed hard on my thigh the other way.  It produced the biggest, purplest bruise I ever had.  I should’ve taken a picture and done a piece about it.  It looked like a tattoo of a distant planet.

Pressing on it was painful and it would take several weeks before it would finally heal.  Undeterred by the bump, I resolved myself to kill this goddamn bug.  I climbed the step stool one more time, very cautiously, and accomplished my mission.  Later on that summer, another bug landed on the wall.  And once again I climbed.  I didn’t fall and the pest was exterminated.  I got this now.

Speaking of bugs and pests, it wasn’t a great year for Donald Trump, what with all the investigations he’s currently facing for historic corruption.  In early January, Vanity Fair reporter Michael Wolff released his best-selling book Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House which pretty much confirmed what the press had been reporting for two and a half years.  I didn’t get a chance to read it until October.  Rather than do a proper review, I did a four-part series focusing on what I called its “curious moments”.

That same month, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward unveiled Fear: Trump In The White House, another scathing bestseller that, like the Wolff tome, focused more on insider gossip than the damage the administration is doing to human rights and the environment.  It inspired a 6-part series that dove into its many revelations.

When I wasn’t trying to get my ISP to fix my bad dial-up connection to no avail (and being put on hold to listen to the same 4 tunes over and over for an hour, only 2 of which were catchy), I was having more issues with Twitter beyond not being able to link paste.

First, there was the brief warning about calling out Hulk Hogan for being a racist.  (I got a 12-hour limited ban which seemed to instantaneously disappear since I didn’t notice any restrictions whatsoever.)  Then, there was what happened on election night in America.

During the midterms, as I’ve done during previous elections, I tweeted and retweeted the results as they were coming in, as well as interesting observations from fellow users.  Apparently, I was overdoing this and Twitter suddenly locked my account which thankfully lasted for only a day.  After failing to get through that ridiculous test to unlock it, I complained through email and got back on again.  To their credit, they apologized twice and acknowledged that their algorithms mistook me for a bot.  As aggravated as all of us users get about the site (some more justifiably than others), I hate not having access.

In a year filled with disappointments and heartbreak, the Winter Olympics in South Korea were a delightful exception.  For us Canadians, it has become must see TV thanks to our incredible athletes who once again collectively delivered an astonishing performance capturing 29 medals, our greatest achievement thus far.  As usual, the games were so entertaining I had to write about it.  The semi-jokey Unofficial 2018 Winter Olympics Awards was the resulting effort.  Our tally was even more impressive when you consider we had no Golds in skiing, ice hockey or four-person curling.

Finally, let’s talk about movies, my number one passion.  I screened and graded close to 240 titles in 2018, my highest annual total since I start doing this back in the fall of 1990 when I was entering Grade 10 and looking for something different to write about for my school publications.  While I didn’t see as many good films (21 compared to 41 in 2017), I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to continue to play much needed catch-up after that eight-year period between 2006 and 2014 where I barely assessed anything.

Like 2017, out of the 40-something reviews posted here, most were about horror movies.

The best was Room 237, a fascinatingly loony documentary about the many conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  What was the worst?  Probably Hide And Go Shriek, a long forgotten slasher film set in a closed furniture store.  There’s a good reason no one remembers it.

In between were more disappointments like Martin, the puzzling, overrated George A. Martin misfire, Winchester, It’s Alive, and Warm Bodies.  Some horror films are so bad, you have to write about them.  Hide And Seek, Shutter, White Of The Eye, Warlock: The Armageddon, Jeepers Creepers 3, Bad Moon, A Woman’s Torment and Crawlspace all failed to achieve true terror with their often convoluted concepts.

The Car, featuring a young James Brolin two years before he starred in The Amityville Horror, might be the silliest possession movie ever made.  The barely seen Spellbinder, featuring a young, glamourous Kelly Preston, is one of the most predictable.  The original Flatliners is well-acted and has an intriguing premise, but nearly 30 years after I first saw it at the cinema, it lacks genuine scares now.  The First Purge is easily the best of the Purge movies thanks to two breakout performances but it hasn’t resolved the problems that plagued its far worse predecessors.

Poor Morris Chestnut.  How far he has fallen since Boyz N The Hood.  In both The Perfect Guy and When The Bough Breaks, he is targeted by a psycho who either has feelings for him or unrequited lust for his leading lady.  He only survives in one.  He deserves better than signing on for these mostly routine thrillers.

Which leads us to The Snowman.  This slow-moving sludge got carved up by the critics and was almost completely ignored by moviegoers, killing any future plans for sequels.  Having finally screened it, this is not a shocker.  I didn’t think it was as bad as some reviewers asserted, but certainly not worth a two-hour investment.

The torturous Death Wish was remade and felt very out of place in this era of low crime and unnecessary police violence.  The deluded Kick-Ass even more so.  Vin Diesel can thank his lucky stars that the lucrative franchises he abandoned nearly 20 years ago have since welcomed him back but if this means more obnoxious dreck like XXX: Return Of Xander Cage, then count me out.

In this post-9/11 era, propaganda actioners like Olympus Has Fallen and its follow-up London Has Fallen have become the unfortunate norm.  The sooner we end the war on Muslims, the better.

Volcano is no better than Dante’s Peak and Just Cause wastes the talents of Ed Harris, Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne.

Now I didn’t just subject myself to terrible horror films, crime stories and action thrillers.  There were also godawful comedies.

I don’t know what happened to Eddie Murphy but A Thousand Words might be the worst film he’s ever made.  No wonder it was delayed for nearly half a decade.  Although it has its fans, Bad Words exposes Jason Bateman’s biggest ongoing problem as an actor:  his unfunny smarminess.  I never thought I would see him in anything worse than Teen Wolf Too.  I stand corrected.

The most memorable thing about 17 Again is Matthew Perry’s large noggin.  And after 30 years, Cocktail‘s painful sexism is undeniable.

Animated comedies fared no better.  I reviewed two this year:  the laughless Kung Fu Panda and The Last Unicorn, which was truly bizarre.  I can’t get over that three-titted vulture and that bosomy tree.  How many childhoods were tainted by this film, I wonder.

But there were bright spots.  I thoroughly enjoyed Jason Statham’s ass-kicking turn in The Transporter and I was absolutely delighted by all the mayhem in the amusing, genuinely thrilling Jurassic World.  There are wonderful, rare musical performances in Festival Express, and Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage lovingly pays tribute to Canada’s greatest musical export.  They should expand it into a proper series because they left out a lot of important details and revelations.

I had never seen the original theatrical cut of Richard Donner’s Superman (just numerous director’s edits) so it was a treat to write about it.  (Too bad I barfed in my original promotional garbage can, bought at a grocery store and now tragically discarded, 18 years ago.)  After watching Superman & The Mole-Men and Man Of Steel, I decided to do a triple-review.  Bookending the 1978 blockbuster, I wasn’t nearly as fond of them, unfortunately.  Christopher Reeve is so sorely missed.

As we approach the beginning of 2019, despite all the sadness we’ve experienced, the frustration and anger we collectively felt throughout this monstrous year, goddamn it, let’s stay hopeful.  Let’s resolve to get things right, to straighten out, to smarten up, to fix what’s broken, to not feel powerless anymore and aim for greatness.

Special thanks, as always, to all my loyal Twitter and WordPress followers for reading, commenting and visiting.

Happy New Year, everybody!

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, December 31, 2018
10:28 p.m.

Published in: on December 31, 2018 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment