Festival Express

In the summer of 1970, a concert promoter who successfully brought John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band to Toronto had a crazy idea.  What if I rent a train, fill it with big musical acts and travel to five Canadian cities to play outdoor stadium shows, all within a week or so?

The result was the Festival Express tour.  Towering influences like Janis Joplin & Buddy Guy and notable groups like The Grateful Dead & The Band eagerly climbed onboard a CN train and had way more fun riding the rails than they ever did on stage.

A film crew was hired to cover the entire experience but a lawsuit kept the footage out of public view for years.  It wasn’t until the 90s when some 30 hours of film was re-discovered in huge piles of silver cans.  But it would take another decade for some of that material to finally be screened in theatres.  (Additional footage would surface as bonus features on Blu-ray.)

Finally available in 2004, Festival Express the movie marries some of the previously unseen footage with contemporary interviews of some of the key, surviving players.  With the exception of the promoter, everyone has positive memories of the experience.

In between stellar live performances captured during all-day shows in Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg (planned stops in Montreal and Vancouver never happened), we witness numerous performers bonding on the train through drinking, puffing, laughing and jamming.  In one scene, The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia declares his love for Joplin after The Band’s Rick Danko leads a sing-a-long.  Afterwards, Joplin flirts with Danko.  The party never stops until there’s a show to perform.  There are no arguments, no visible tension (although Kenny Gradney, who looks like a young, late 70s Prince, is the only one who raises his voice).

There were also no showers on the train and there was hardly any sleep but no one wanted the tour to end.  You get the feeling all the bands would’ve been perfectly happy to never leave the bar car.  But at one point, they have to.  They very quickly run out of booze.  The hard-nosed promoter orders the train conductor to make an unscheduled stop at the nearest liquor store.

During the Toronto gig, however, there’s trouble.  A small group of cheapskates protest the $14 ticket price for the show demanding it should be free.  They even attack a police horse.  Today’s concertgoers would probably laugh at such whining considering the hundreds of dollars they spend on current festivals.  To try to calm them down, The Dead perform a free concert in a nearby park.  There is deep irony in the scene where these normally anti-authority hippie performers, angered by the backlash, defend the police.

By the time the tour reaches Winnipeg, even the mayor of that city is demanding the impossible which leads to a remarkable anecdote by the promoter.  When the mayor insisted on no cover charge, he punched him right in the face.  Too bad that scene isn’t in the movie.

Festival Express runs briskly at just under 90 minutes and as a result, feels way too short.  There are no bad songs.  Even the train jams are cool and unique.  How often does Buddy Guy’s fly bassist get to scream out a vocal take?  Never again would all of these musicians find themselves in the same place at the same time enjoying the freedom and luxury such an event would afford them.  Janis Joplin would tragically die a few months after its conclusion.

Because the Festival Express was riding through Canada, Toronto’s Ian & Sylvia Tyson are invited to participate.  Sylvia looked like a young Linda Ronstadt while echoing Grace Slick’s hiccupy vocals.  Despite not being nearly as famous as their American counterparts, their folk-country rock fits right in.  The free-spirited train jamming spills over onto the stage as certain acts cheerfully blend together for specific songs.

Of all the stage performances, none tops the Buddy Guy Blues Band.  During his riveting riffing on Barrett Strong’s Money, you understand immediately why Hendrix worshipped him.  At one point during his impeccable soloing, he’s lowered down to the crowd’s level where he wails away next to a security fence.  While other acts are featured more than once, the film should’ve included a lot more of his performances.  (The Blu-ray features a very good outtake of Hoochie Coochie Man.)

Beyond Touch Of Grey, I’ve never been a Deadhead but Jerry Garcia and company’s performance in this movie has made me expand my appreciation for their legacy a little bit more.  Forgoing the endless jams of their psychedelic origins for more tighter arrangements, based on the three songs they play you can see why they were a popular live act.  The Band does a fine take on their best known song, The Weight, while also offering decent covers of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released and Little Richard’s Slippin’ And Slidin’.  And it really doesn’t matter what Janis Joplin sings, she’s always compelling even if she’s a little pitchy on the chorus of Cry Baby.  All the lesser-known acts hold their own, as well.

When it all comes to an end, because of the protests, the Festival Express tour is a financial disappointment.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t get into specific numbers so we don’t really know how much money was actually lost (Wikipedia says it was a half a million) and it avoids getting too deep into the lawsuit dilemma.  Still bitter decades later, the promoter grumbles that the people didn’t really deserve to see all this talent in one show.

But Festival Express the movie doesn’t want to bum you out, it wants you to join the party.  It wants you to understand firsthand why this was such an enjoyable experience for the musicians.  (Too bad Traffic, Mountain and Ten Years After, who also appeared on the tour, are kept off-camera.)  It captures a loose, carefree period in rock history before greedy, sanitized corporatization would start to ruin it.  There is welcome comraderie among the performers that begins on the train and continues on stage but sadly, would immediately dissipate as all went their separate career paths.

Two shots by the original crew perfectly capture the metaphorical spirit of the times.  One shows the train whipping by so quickly it’s a blur.  And the other shows a track that looks like the longest four-string bass guitar you’ve ever seen.

The impression is unmistakable.  Now how about a sequel?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, June 21, 2018
5:57 p.m.

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Published in: on June 21, 2018 at 5:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Kung Fu Panda

Of the many problems plaguing the overrated Kung Fu Panda, this one hurts it the most.  We don’t really hate the villain.  How can we when he’s been so horribly mistreated?

First of all, he’s abandoned by his family, dropped off as a cub at a dojo run by a rat and a tortoise.  Second of all, after being thoroughly trained in the martial arts by that Splinter wannabe who adopts him as his own son, he is refused the sacred Dragon Scroll because the tortoise has a bad feeling about him.  Up to this point the cub (now a full grown leopard) doesn’t express any villainous tendencies.  But to be fair, after being denied the Scroll, he does take out his frustrations on the local population in this otherwise peaceful Chinese valley.  I don’t exactly blame him, though.  I’d be royally pissed, too.

For the next 20 years, without being convicted in a trial by his animal peers, he is locked up in steel and chains in a gulag heavily guarded by armed rhinos.  He is the only prisoner here.  A floating bird feather begins his vengeful journey back home.

Meanwhile, there’s another big problem with Kung Fu Panda.  The hero is lame.  He’s a clumsy, overweight, kung fu-obsessed panda bear who appears to be the last of his kind.  (His dad is a goose who runs a local noodle shop.)  In the opening scene, one of many thoroughly predictable moments in this completely laughless animated comedy, the panda dreams about being one of the Furious Five, which sadly doesn’t include Melle Mel or Grandmaster Flash.

They’re a group of highly respected animal fighters trained by the rat.  (The panda has their action figures.)  Worried that the pissed off leopard could still escape from that heavily fortified prison (not an unreasonable concern, as it turns out), a public ceremony is held to find the Dragon Warrior, someone worthy of that Dragon Scroll.

The title gives away who that Dragon Warrior will be.  And of course, he has zero athletic ability to work with.  But he has a boundless hunger and after the ancient tortoise suddenly transforms himself into stars in the sky, the rat, initially pushing him hard to quit, eventually uses food as a way to prepare him for battle with the leopard.  The goose would prefer it if he went back to working tables.

The Dragon Scroll turns out to be a MacGuffin.  It reminded me of when Time Magazine put a mirror on its cover and declared “You” the Person Of The Year.  It merely exists as an excuse for animated characters to engage in violence and for one certain character to Hulk up.  Despite the much needed energy that arises from those sequences, the outcomes of all the battles are never in doubt.  (The leopard’s escape from prison is the best one in the film.)

And that’s another significant problem with Kung Fu Panda.  Very little of it is surprising.  It’s essentially a two-joke movie.  How many times can we demonstrate how fat and klutzy the panda is and how many times can we torture him?  I’ve heard dad jokes that were less stale.

Then, there’s the issue I have with the voice cast.  This is supposed to be a movie about Chinese animals.  But I could only count less than a handful of Asian voice actors, most notably James Hong (“Seinfeld!  Four!”) who plays the goose.  Everybody else is either Caucasian or not Asian.

In one way, animated films are like horror movies.  You don’t necessarily need big names to fill the roles.  And unless they are brilliant like Jim Carrey’s Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, their famous voices are distracting and take you out of the story.  I have always liked Jack Black for his genuine enthusiasm and everyman likeability, but he’s not funny as the panda.  Why is the decidedly white Dustin Hoffman voicing the rat when an Asian actor would clearly have been a more suitable choice?  Seth Rogan’s famous laugh (he voices one of the Furious Five) gives him away every time.

As for the animation, it isn’t until the second half that you really start to notice it and that’s only because the action scenes jolt you out of your coma.  Blu-ray rewards colourful visuals.

What it doesn’t reward is formula filmmaking.  Right from the opening sequence, Kung Fu Panda has no intention of being different or interesting.

Imagine if it did.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 10, 2018
7:50 a.m.

Published in: on June 10, 2018 at 7:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Last Unicorn (1982)

A pissed off vulture with three saggy tits.  A tree with two voluptuous bosoms.  A three-legged cat that sounds like a pirate.  An alcoholic skull.  A guy in love with a magical horse.

Half-assedly perverse, The Last Unicorn is an animated fable that clearly wants to be a low-budget Disney musical.  How this got a Family rating from the Ontario Film Review Board I would like to know.  (It should’ve been rated PG.)  Too demented and slow for kids, had it realized its potential as an adult offering it might have been something truly subversive and special.

Mia Farrow voices the sympathetic title character who makes the mistake of asking a butterfly (an annoying Robert Klein) what happened to all her brethren.  After wasting time by singing samples of very old pop songs that most little ones won’t know or remember, he finally informs her that a mysterious character called the Red Bull (it won’t give you wings) chased after them erasing all their hoof prints in the process.  In order to rescue them, he advises, she has to be brave and leave the comfort of her magical forest where it’s always Spring and she has no worry of dying.

So, off she trots for ages and through the seasons until she passes out and is picked up by Mommy Fortuna (a miscast Angela Lansbury), an old hag that runs a travelling animal freak show.  She is one of the few who can actually see the unicorn’s horn.  Everybody else just sees a white mare.

Fortuna puts a fake horn on her head so her gullible customers can clue in and locks her in a cage along with all her other attractions.  Most of them are just old animals transformed into unusual creations except for that pissed off vulture with the three saggy tits.  Actually, it’s a harpy but whatever.

I have to say those tits are very distracting.  Maybe it’s the large nipples.

Anyway, a big-nosed magician (Alan Arkin or is it Kevin Pollak?) who looks uncannily like Pete Townshend takes pity on the unicorn and tries very, very hard to free her with his not-so-spectacular magic.  When none of his spells of gibberish work, he simply picks the mocking lock (“Some magician!”).  After the unicorn frees the old animals with her lock-picking horn, the magician warns her not to release the harpy.

She doesn’t listen.  The harpy with the three saggy tits tries to attack her (the ungrateful bitch) but ultimately settles on Mommy Fortuna who doesn’t really care all that much about being devoured.  She thinks that because she was able to keep the harpy prisoner, that embarrassing fact alone will haunt the triple-titted predator for the rest of her days.  I think she’s out of her mind.

Now free, the magician tags along with the unicorn as they search for the miserable King Haggard (the always effective Christopher Lee) who we later find out hired a wizard to create the Red Bull to chase the unicorns from their enchanted forest into the sea near his high-rise castle.  The only joy he gets out of life is knowing they’re underwater as he looks down below.  So why does he never smile?  Maybe because they never pop out of the water to say hi?

Look, I know it’s a cartoon but how exactly do unicorns breathe underwater?  Also, when you find out how many are in Haggard’s custody, why don’t they all rush the Red Bull at once?  Are they really that powerless outside the enchanted forest?

Before the magician and the unicorn get to his castle, though, the magician gets kidnapped by some opportunistic bandits.  At one point, he’s tied to a tree, his punishment for conjuring the spirits of Robin Hood, his merry men and Maid Marian.  (Captain Culley, the head bandit, claims they’re a “myth”.)  He’s also going to be sold.  (Is there a burgeoning market for inconsistent wizards?)  In order to attempt to free himself, he casts a spell.  The now super horny tree suddenly grows rather large bosoms.  The magician’s head fits snugly in between them.  Did I mention this is a kids’ movie?

Molly (Tammy Grimes), the grumpy, unhappy companion of Culley, wants to tag along because she’s very fond of the unicorn.  She’s always wanted one, you see, and is a little too teary-eyed about finally being in the company of one.  When the Red Bull comes calling, the magician turns the unicorn into a naked, long-haired blonde babe he ultimately dubs Lady Amalthea (how did he come up with that name so quickly?) who he tries to pass off as his niece which no one buys.

Finally at the castle entrance, they encounter two skeptical guards who turn out to be Haggard himself and his adopted son Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges).  The only other occupants in this place are a few guards and a wizard who gets fired.  (Molly, who apparently doesn’t own any socks or shoes, is put to work as a cook and cleaner.)  There’s also a three-legged cat who sounds like a pirate (his fourth is a peg leg) and wears a patch for no good reason (he’s not missing an eye), plus a cackling skull that craves alcohol.  Both provide enigmatic clues to discovering the location of the lost unicorns.

Lir falls hard and fast for the initially indifferent Amalthea who is quickly forgetting she’s actually a magical horse.  This forced romance is awkward enough but Lir’s attempts at poetry and singing make you wonder if he’s ever had a girlfriend.  He also slices off the tail of a dragon to try to impress her.  Has he ever had a date?

Ah yes, the singing.  Bridges and Mia Farrow do their best with forgettable material but their voices aren’t strong enough to compensate for unmoving melodies.  (Farrow sounds a bit pitchy, dawg.)  The rest of these dreary songs are performed by America, one of which we have to suffer through twice.  There’s no Horse With No Name or Magic to be heard here.  How unsurprising that the soundtrack to this film has never been released in North America.

The Last Unicorn is based on the book of the same name.  Its author, Peter S. Beagle, had been trying for 15 years to turn it into a feature film.  (He’s also been attempting to get a live-action remake shot but that’s not happening any time soon.)  His adapted screenplay lacks wit and emotional heart.  Most of the voice actors are often better than the hit-and-miss lines they’re given.  And the story has zero suspense.

The animation is wildly uneven.  Some scenes look good, especially on Blu-ray which rewards colourful images, while others look unfinished, reminiscent of the cheapo Disney era that began with the unfunny 101 Dalmatians.  Consider the moment when the unicorns ride that wave to freedom.  That’s not theatrical quality work.  That’s straight-to-video-level mediocrity.

When the movie turned 25 eleven years ago, a censored version hit home video.  Basically, that means three “damns” and a “hell” were inexplicably removed.  Will such words scandalize children today?  In a hardcore world filled with “motherfuckers” and “cocksuckers”, obviously not.

But I’m sure there’ll be lots of boob questions.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, May 20, 2018
4:56 p.m.

Published in: on May 20, 2018 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cocktail (1988)

Cocktail is the heartwarming story of a self-absorbed douchebag who gets everything he wants despite being a self-absorbed douchebag.

A young Tom Cruise plays that self-absorbed douchebag, an Army veteran ready to start his new life in New York City.  Perpetually tardy, he struggles to find work in high-profile industries that require more than a high school diploma.

After enduring a succession of rejections, he spots a help wanted sign in a local bar run by Bryan Brown, another self-absorbed douchebag who lives by his own invented “laws”.  A cynical Aussie who delights in deceiving his own customers, he takes a desperate Cruise under his wing.  They deserve each other.

Cruise’s first night, as you can imagine, doesn’t go so well.  He’s never bartended before.  But to be fair, this is no ordinary bartending gig.  You don’t just serve drinks here.  No, in this place, you also put on a show.  What does that mean exactly?  It means juggling and dancing to rock and roll.  Oh, and reciting poetry.  Bad, laughless poetry.

During the day, an eventually fatigued Cruise attends a local college hoping to develop enough skills to start his own business.  He dreams of franchising his own bar in shopping malls.  But the professors are brutal.  One particular instructor delights in humiliating his own students, especially when they fuck up an assignment.  In one of his few heroic moments, Cruise sticks up for an adult student, a housewife who gets ridiculed in an uncomfortably sexist way.

But most of the time, like his mentor, he’s hard to take.

Brown and Cruise get offered a chance to bartend at a place called Cell Block, a giant warehouse that looks more like a set that an actual watering hole.  It’s here he encounters hot photog Gina Gershon who he inevitably beds.

Brown warns him afterwards that she’s not girlfriend material. (It’s enough with the “slut” shaming already.)  He beds her, too, which leads to a serious falling out.

Cruise relocates to Jamaica where he tends his own bar.  A frantic Elizabeth Shue needs help with her passed out friend and the barman springs into action.  They get intimate very quickly despite their lack of believability as a couple.

There are too many consecutive scenes featuring Cruise and the artsy Shue being unfunny and luvey duvey which means at some point it’s all going to suddenly come to a crashing halt.  In the midst of this, Brown unexpectedly shows up with a new, rich wife (Kelly Lynch) and one night, he bets Cruise (they’re always gambling with each other) he can’t get that attractive older woman (Lisa Banes) at the bar to shag him.

As Cruise and Banes drunkenly walk away together on the beach, guess who just happens to be walking up at the same time.  Devastated by the betrayal, without telling Cruise (he doesn’t see her approaching), Shue flies back to New York.

Incredibly, even after learning what happened, Cruise doesn’t put two and two together.  Instead, because Banes is loaded and could give him a job as a salesman (we have no idea what her business is), he continues to see her.  He’s clearly not happy so why does he torture himself like this?  They fly back to New York and soon have a messy split.

Remembering where Shue works in the city (she’s a diner waitress), Cruise starts stalking her. Then, he finally works up the courage to go in.  Big mistake.  He shouldn’t have asked for the specials.  Nonetheless, now that he’s available again, he keeps trying to get her back.

As it turns out, Shue isn’t just mad at him for boinkng someone else.  She got a little unexpected present from their own romp on the beach.  You would think she’d just get it taken care of already.  But no.

Cruise then blames her for what happened, claiming with a straight face that she’s the reason everything was happening too quickly.  But he eventually calms down and discovers that Shue hasn’t been completely honest with him, either.  You could be in a coma and still correctly predict how all this will end.

It’s been 30 years since the original release of Cocktail and time has not been kind.  The film is painfully sexist.  Every woman is either a bitch, a “slut”, a liar, a manipulator or a victim needing to be rescued.  What a mistake to merge this formulaic melodrama into a terrible comedy.  There are no funny moments.  We dislike the chauvinistic Brown and Cruise and don’t buy either of their relationships.  They’re charmless golddiggers.

Late in the film, Cruise learns that Brown’s life has completely fallen apart.  His wife openly cheats on him in the new bar they own.  (She even makes a play for Cruise.)  And despite the packed crowd the night he visits him, they’re not making any money.  (Too much overhead.)  That leads to another fairly predictable moment that is not as impactful as the filmmakers were hoping it would be.

Cocktail seems less interested in revealing the mysterious, insular world of bartending than it is in pushing Cruise as some kind of irresistible stud.  There’s no denying the man’s charisma but his uneven character makes him difficult to root for.  There’s such a disconnect between his occasional bouts of heroism and his more typical cocksure womanizing.

Bryan Brown starts off as an interesting character, smart and worldly, before ultimately exposing himself as a fraudulent, insufferable ne’er-do-well.  Cruise’s animosity towards him after he fools around with Gershon mysteriously disappears when he suddenly arrives in Jamaica.  Yes, Cruise is seeing Elizabeth Shue at this point but there’s no make-up scene.  It’s all conveniently forgotten.  Brown just isn’t lovable enough to get away with such treachery.  Why Cruise allows him to repeatedly muck around with his love life is a mystery.  Capitalism is a helluva drug.

Briefly seen supporting players like Gershon, Banes and longtime character actor Ron Dean, who plays Cruise’s no-nonsense bar-owning uncle, are more watchable and less grating.  Dean, in particular, makes the most of his interactions with Cruise.  He’s clearly a more straightforward mentor than Bryan.  He’s not out to screw family.

I didn’t screen Cocktail during its original run in 1988 but I vividly remember some of the music.  I’ve forgotten that Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy made its debut on the soundtrack.  (No clips were shown in the highly aired video.)  It gets a lot more play than the tiny snippet of The Beach Boys’ Kokomo which became their last huge single.

Cocktail was released two years after the one-two punch of Top Gun and The Colour Of Money and the year before Born On The Fourth Of July.  It is an odd entry in the Tom Cruise canon, an uncharacteristic misstep in his first decade of fame.  He’s made other bad films in his career but this archaic curiosity remains his bottom.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 5, 2018
1:38 a.m.

Published in: on May 5, 2018 at 1:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass isn’t a superhero movie.  It’s a lazy mob saga drenched in fascism.

It’s not about likeable individuals with special powers who abide by a long established code of ethics to foil seemingly unstoppable supervillains.  It’s about wronged parties seeking misguided revenge against reckless, ordinary goons by targeting them for extrajudicial assassination.  How is this ok?

In yet another one of his strangest performances, Nicolas Cage is one of those wronged people.  He needlessly served five years in prison thanks to a frame job by a generic mob boss named Frank D’Amico.  Left alone to fend for herself, his pregnant wife died giving birth to their only child, the charismatic Chloe Grace Moritz.  (For some reason, Cage has documented his tale of woe in comic book form.)

No longer serving as a law enforcement drug warrior, he has been secretly training his game 11-year-old daughter to fight alongside him as they both attempt to take down D’Amico and his operation without any assistance from his former employers, his more sensible ex-partner (and one-time guardian of Moritz) being a notable exception.

In one of many uncomfortable scenes played for non-existent laughs (what a mistake to make this a comedy), Cage tests Moritz by popping a few “low velocity” bullets into her protected chest to prepare her for the pain of getting shot.  (Talk about Father Of The Year.)  At night, when they begin systematically eliminating D’Amico’s absurdly outmatched associates, she becomes a purple wigged, Lone Ranger masked Hit Girl and he becomes a Batman wannabe named Big Daddy.

Despite being petite, in a number of implausible sequences, this foul-mouthed sidekick singlehandedly takes out in brutal fashion a large number of D’Amico’s heavily armed men.  I haven’t witnessed action scenes this preposterous since the first Charlie’s Angels movie.

Meanwhile, Cage makes the odd decision to alter the cadence of his voice for Big Daddy in a very awkward way.  I’m not sure this was the intention but it sure sounds like he’s trying to imitate William Shatner with his sometimes delayed, sometimes bombastic staccato delivery.  It doesn’t work.  He sounds daft, especially in his final scene.

After taking out a bunch of D’Amico’s drug dealers, Hit Girl encounters Kick-Ass, a not-so-skilled wannabe superhero who’s only in this godforsaken place because he’s trying to impress a cute girl who unfortunately thinks he’s gay.  (Don’t ask.)

He’s really a nerdy high school kid tired of being picked on by those punks in the parking lot who keep shaking him and his friends down for their cash, phones and comic books.  When he’s not masturbating thinking about his busty English teacher (is that really appropriate attire to wear around hormonal young dudes, Mrs. Zane?), he dreams of transforming his defenseless self into a skilled, fighting machine.

Gene Siskel wisely noted that if a superhero doesn’t have a decent costume to wear, the movie won’t be decent, either.  When Kick-Ass orders a hideous green scuba diving outfit over the Internet, it’s one of the many reasons you question his sanity.

With absolutely no athletic ability whatsoever, he makes the fatefully foolish decision to confront his two parking lot tormenters where despite getting a few licks in, he takes the beating of his life.  Incredibly, he survives.  But more importantly he’s lost a lot of feeling and has acquired metal plates which means he can take even more punishment.  He’s The Brooklyn Brawler without any sense.

Inevitably, while confronting three attackers who chase and beat up a man for reasons that are never divulged, Kick-Ass becomes an Internet folk hero when cell phone videos of the battle are posted online. News channels cover the story while the local comic book store starts cashing in.  Craig Ferguson thinks he’s dressed like a transvestite.  So many missed opportunities for clever satire here.

Hit Girl and Big Daddy become his mentors but that will bite them in the ass pretty hard when Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad’s McLovin) transforms himself into Red Mist.  Despite his tricked out ride, he’s exactly like Kick-Ass, a lonely guy looking for a purpose and a self-esteem boost.  He contacts Kick-Ass through his popular MySpace page (the movie was released in 2010).

Unfortunately, he’s a deceptive little shit.  Frank D’Amico is his father.  Red Mist is bait for Kick-Ass to be lured into a trap that goes horribly wrong.  D’Amico is under the mistaken impression that an inept high school teen is responsible for his recent losses and not the vengeful ex-cop he doesn’t realize is out to get him.  In fact, he never learns this, even when he’s confronted by Cage’s daughter in a hyperviolent scene that is incredibly cringeworthy and irresponsible.

Besides the complete lack of funny, perceptive moments, it’s the grotesque violence that ultimately makes Kick-Ass such an off-putting film.  This isn’t a fun experience at all.

The movie can’t decide whether to be realistic or a fantasy so it tries to be both which fatally underscores its muddled existence.  While of course it’s believable that an inexperienced high school kid with zero martial arts training would repeatedly find himself on the receiving end of so many blows, there’s no way in hell a young child could ever inflict the kind of mayhem routinely seen in countless shoot-em-ups while only suffering a bloody nose.  And why does Hit Girl have such a potty mouth?  Did we not learn our lesson from The Last Boy Scout?

There’s a creepy scene where Kick-Ass sneaks into his high school crush’s bedroom while she’s brushing her hair.  After she understandably freaks out and proves once again that he’s such a wimpy character, he finally reveals his true identity and sexuality.  Then, they have sex.  Sure.

When Red Mist’s betrayal leads to the capture of Big Daddy and Kick-Ass, D’Amico arranges a live Internet broadcast where they are viciously beaten by his masked hired hands in front of the whole world.  (Would TV news channels really cut away because of excessive violence?  Give us a break.  And why would people be watching this on TV in the first place?)  A gal pal of Kick-Ass’ now-girlfriend hugs one of his terminally unfunny friends and looks away in horror.  Meanwhile, while his friend is getting humiliated in real-time, this guy is looking awfully pleased with himself.  And no, he doesn’t know Kick-Ass is his friend.  Still, as Hit Girl would put it, what a douche.

The very first scene in the film is a heartless swerve.  As the future Kick-Ass narrates his rationale for being a vigilante, we witness another poor misguided sap plunging to his death.  The movie wants us to believe our hero has already died two minutes in.  But then he reveals the man is an Algerian with mental health problems.  Tone-deaf.

Early on in the film, Cage’s former partner on the police force pays him a visit.  It’s the first of two personal warnings that D’Amico is after him (and one of his fellow officers is on his payroll).  As he leaves, he says something wise.  He tells Cage that he owes his daughter a childhood.

The makers of Kick-Ass owe us an apology.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 22, 2018
6:35 p.m.

Published in: on April 22, 2018 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

XXX: Return Of Xander Cage

Vin Diesel is one lucky son of a bitch.

Back at the start of the 2000s, he broke through in three films:  Pitch Black, The Fast And The Furious, XXX.  All were popular enough to spawn sequels.  But instead of appearing in the follow-ups to all three, Diesel restricted himself to just one:  The Chronicles Of Riddick, the second Pitch Black movie.

When 2 Fast 2 Furious and XXX: State Of The Union were released, he was persona non grata.  Hell, he was even killed off in XXX 2.  Instead of cashing in on his success, Diesel thought it was a better idea to appear in The Pacifier.  Yeah, it made a shitload of money, too, but try sitting through it.  Has anyone been begging for a sequel to that garbage?

His other film projects didn’t turn as a big a profit, though, so inevitably he came crawling back to the cinematic playgrounds responsible for his fame.  First, he returned to The Fast And The Furious franchise which added The Rock to the cast and became even more lucrative than before.  Then, he made another Pitch Black sequel, Riddick.

For a decade, Diesel expressed public interest in doing a third XXX.  But there was the inconvenient problem of his character being dead.  No problem.  Let’s just pretend he faked his death and we can all get back to cashing multi-million dollar pay cheques again.

Finally released in January 2017, XXX: Return Of Xander Cage is less a movie than a cynical exercise in formula restoration.  Like Vin Diesel himself, it is smug, contemptible and completely obnoxious.

If you recall the original, Diesel was an extreme sports fanatic recruited by Samuel L. Jackson for a top secret government program called Triple-X.  (Shouldn’t Diesel’s XXX tattoo on the back of his neck be redacted?)  He was essentially James Bond with no hair, lots of tattoos and little charm.  16 years later, he hasn’t changed.

When we first see him in number three, he’s become something of a folk hero.  Laying low in the Dominican Republic, the local townspeople want to see the Brazil-Germany football match on TV.  Long story short, Diesel makes it happen by stealing a satellite signal from a cable tower.  The whole sequence is played out mysteriously until all the TVs in the area tune into the match just as it begins.  (Def Con One this isn’t.)  Disappointing the Dominicans, not the audience, is the “crisis” he’s averting.

Instead of being approached again by Jackson (who must’ve studied John Malkovich in Red 2), Diesel is put through a strange test of sorts before conferring with an icy blond (and extremely dumb) Toni Collette, another high ranking government official although I don’t remember what her actual position is.  As we witness for ourselves at the start of the film, a satellite comes crashing down on Earth just as Jackson is pitching Brazillian footballer Neymar Jr. on joining the Triple-X program.

Before briefing Diesel, Collette reveals in a not very discreet meeting with other high ranking officials (can’t you morons afford curtains or better security?) that someone has a device her team has nicknamed Pandora’s Box because it has the ability to select any of a wide number of satellites as potential bombs to be dropped on people they don’t like.  (Why not drones?  Don’t satellites completely disintegrate upon entering Earth’s atmosphere?)

Why is this happening?  Two words:  mass surveillance.  They want it to stop.

Of course, this explanation turns out to be bullshit.  It’s all a ruse because some government officials want to discontinue the Triple-X program for good.  Why?  Who the fuck knows or cares?

The government meeting gets interrupted by what turns out to be another Triple-X agent.  He crashes through the windows with no curtains and somehow manages to singlehandedly take control without receiving so much as a scratch.  He also snatches what he thinks is the Pandora’s Box device right from Collette’s hands.  It’s actually just a prototype that can only select one target.

Along with his three fellow Triple-Xers, the international foursome retreat to an island in the Philippines where there’s considerable disagreement about what to do with the device they don’t yet realize isn’t the real Pandora’s Box.  One wants it destroyed.  The other wants to use it for some reason.  Neither decision will change anything.

Meanwhile, after literally ejecting the team of grunts Collette assigns to him on a giant military plane he’s been commissioned, Diesel instead recruits a terrible DJ, a bearded maniac who keeps track of how many crashes he’s survived (close to 200) and Ruby Rose, a self-appointed protector of wild animals.  Through an impromptu weapons deal, they’re allowed into an island party thrown by the other Triple-Xers (the ones who stole the Pandora’s Box prototype).

There’s a bizarre scene where Diesel sits down with two of them and live grenades are passed around in an unexciting game of chicken.  (How is it they don’t know they’re all in the same government program?) Quickly clicking a button prevents certain obliteration.  Not clicking would’ve been more interesting.

Then, a couple of helicopters arrive and shortly thereafter, the expected chaos ensues.

In what becomes an irritating recurring theme throughout the film, those who point their massive weaponry at Diesel don’t do the obvious thing by shooting him in the head.  Instead, they let him yak and yak and yak (or they blather on too long) until he determines how to get himself and his team out unscathed while they all lay dead on the ground.

The worst example of this is during a later scene on that commissioned war plane.  Toni Collette keeps talking and talking and while she does eventually shoot Diesel, does she aim for his rather large cranium?  Nope.  She pops him three times in the chest where it’s highly unlikely he’s not wearing impenetrable body armor.

Inevitably, the two sets of Triple-X teams align for the common cause of stopping the continuing threat of those falling satellite bombs.  A very annoying Nina Dobrev plays a government gadget guru and tech whiz who alternates between interfering with the Pandora’s Box’s targeting (basically delaying a strike from a specific satellite) and bizarrely lusting for Diesel.  (Every woman except for Collette has the same unconvincing reaction to him.)  She’s never been out in the field facing any kind of hostility before so of course she gets to kill baddies, intentionally and accidentally, as well.

XXX: Return Of Xander Cage is deeply in love with itself, especially when it thinks it’s being funny (it never is) and during its increasingly ludicrous action stunts, one of which was filmed in a downtown street in my hometown.  The heroes always know they’re never in any real, serious danger so they constantly snark and smirk while punching, kicking and shooting.  Put simply, there’s too much showing off and not a lot of intriguing storytelling.

Ice Cube makes a surprise cameo in the nick of time reprising his role from State Of The Union but all his appearance does is depressingly suggest a future pairing.  Because XXX 3 made money, this seems unpreventable.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, April 13, 2018
5:01 p.m.

Published in: on April 13, 2018 at 5:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

London Has Fallen

Early on in London Has Fallen, we learn about a notorious international arms dealer.  He’s from Yemen and he lives like a king.  In the middle of his daughter’s lavish outdoor wedding, a mysterious figure sends a text message indicating his presence.  Moments later, the party is attacked by an American drone.

But two years later, we discover he has survived.  And he is very, very angry about what has happened to his daughter.  (Curiously, no other victims are mentioned.)

Like its predecessor, Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen is deliberately myopic about the effects of America’s draconian foreign policies.  In the earlier film, North Koreans had a legitimate gripe about unmentioned US sanctions that were causing mass famine.  In the sequel, it’s Obama’s heartless drone wars killing Muslim civilians.  When these inconvenient truths are pointed out by the villains in both films, their anger is cruelly dismissed by US government officials whose xenophobic bloodlust trumps any and all humanitarian concerns.

It’s particularly galling to see Yemen exploited as a setting here for the purpose of selling US war propaganda when you consider how much it has been decimated by Saudi Arabia & its American ally these last three years.  It’s not the poorest Middle Eastern country by choice.

Once again, Gerard Butler, the torture-happy secret service agent who singlehandedly ended the North Korean siege of the White House in Olympus, is back by President Aaron Eckhart’s side.  He’s now an expectant father (Radha Mitchell returns to her thankless role as his partner) thinking of retiring for good.

But then the British Prime Minister suddenly dies.  This means there will be a state funeral filled with foreign leaders except the unnamed Russian President which is clearly a cheap dig at Putin.  Despite the tight security, it all goes horribly wrong when various law enforcement officers start opening fire on everybody and numerous bombs go off all across London.  Several world leaders are murdered but Butler is able to protect the President and his entourage.

As they make their frantic escape, they are trailed by determined gunmen on motorcycles.  Not all of the President’s team make it to their waiting helicopter.  Once onboard and in the air, not only are they attacked, so too are their two doomed flying escorts.

As RPGs fly through the air obliterating the American contingency, Eckhart and Butler’s copter crashes hard leaving them the sole survivors.  They have no other option but to run as endless guerrillas continue to hunt them down.

Despite its uncomfortably racist overtones, this whole sequence is, if you’ll forgive the bad pun, well executed if completely preposterous.  Like Olympus, London makes a mockery of national security procedures proving once again that there is no such thing as being and feeling completely safe.  Having said that, though, how could this scene possibly take place in the real world?  It would require an unfathomable amount of stupidity and laxity that defies common sense.

At any event, it soon becomes clear that all of this violence (and the ensuing blackout) is only happening because of that ill-advised drone strike.  When the international arms dealer also points out that the American government also sells weaponry to shady characters, just like he does, that goes over like a lead balloon.

Once again, Morgan Freeman becomes the acting President back home in Washington.  Promoted from Speaker Of The House to Vice President (because the last VP was executed), he and his team assist the Brits in their investigation of the arms dealer.  A mole is correctly suspected and unlike Dylan McDermott in Olympus, the former’s reasoning for turning heel are much clearer.

Butler and Eckhart make their way to an MI6 safe house where we meet the lovely Charlotte Riley in a very good performance as a cynical British spy.  Perhaps realizing that Olympus was too much of a Die Hard rip-off, Butler doesn’t get to pull off his one-man John McClane act this time around.  Riley’s efforts alone prove invaluable to ending the crisis, even if they’re not always ethical.

Back on the run, just when they think it can’t get any worse, Butler watches helplessly in his crashed, flipped, borrowed getaway vehicle as Eckhart gets kidnapped and later threatened with a decapitation to be broadcast live on the Internet for the whole world to see.  Good thing some British grunts are in the area.

Shortening the running time (99 minutes instead of two hours) and changing the locale does not make London Has Fallen a better movie than its predecessor, despite the improved action sequences.  No amount of superficial adjustments can overcome its disgusting white supremacy.  This becomes abundantly clear during the final speech where once again American arrogance is preferred over the wisdom of isolationism.  Being repeatedly warned about the chronic foolishness of interfering in geopolitical hot zones where consequential actions can haunt for decades is openly combatted with a stubborn determination to maintain the role of empire despite the growing mass resistance to this crumbling philosophy.

This crucial lesson will still not be learned in Angel Has Fallen.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
4:17 a.m.

Published in: on April 10, 2018 at 4:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Olympus Has Fallen

America’s history in the Korean Peninsula is an ugly one.  From 1950 to 1953, the military bombed the North so often and so brutally they had literally run out of targets to attack.  Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were obliterated thanks to the use of questionable weaponry and deliberate recklessness, the full extent of which is only now coming to light.  Although there’s been no violence since, the Korean War is still going on today.  Only a tenuous truce has prevented more bloodshed on a mass scale but for how much longer?

It’s no wonder this permanent stain on America’s political legacy is mostly ignored in Olympus Has Fallen, a sometimes silly but often troubling piece of blatant propaganda that dismisses legitimate North Korean anger towards historical war crimes and ongoing repression.

President Aaron Eckhart is preparing to meet with the leader of South Korea to work out a possible solution to the North’s growing military presence on their border.  Unfortunately, his security detail has been secretly infiltrated by Northern commandos.

Meanwhile, a couple of North Korean pilots have seized a US Air Force plane and arrive in DC with guns a-blazing.  The scene starts out so ridiculously and implausibly I laughed out loud.  But then the violent attack goes on and on until part of the Washington Monument gets destroyed.  That’s an effective moment that also serves as an unwelcome metaphor.  Because the monument is quite phallic, its partial decimation suggests deflated military strength caused by a sleeping national security state.  But we need less toxic masculinity, not more.

As the attack from the air is happening, secret service agent Cole Hauser (who’s quite good here) quickly ushers the President and the South Korean team to the legendary underground White House bunker.  This is a very stupid decision because once safely ensconced that’s when the North Koreans take control.  A former agent Dylan McDermott turns heel and hilariously notes to Eckhart that he’s not exactly a fan.  He also points out that the President is owned by the superrich.  It’s never clear, however, why McDermott betrays his country.  There’s no mention of a pay-off.

So, why is this happening?  The North Koreans are fed up with all their suffering and mass starvation caused by all those barbaric US/UN sanctions that are conveniently not mentioned, for if they were we’d be more sympathetic.  (Kang, their leader, is also pissed off about what happened to his parents.)

So, how are they going to punish the US?  By activating Cerberus, a secret nuclear program that normally would be used to prevent wrongly launched missiles from detonating, something that hasn’t been needed thus far.  The North Koreans want to use it to blow up the nukes on American soil.

But the program can’t be used without the implementation of three codes.  Thankfully, the individual possessors of those codes are in the bunker with them.  In the worst scene in the movie, Oscar winner Melissa Leo, the outmuscled Secretary of Defense, gets brutally beaten until the President orders her to give up her code.  It’s such an unconscionable sequence I cringed all the way through it.

What would likely take days to crack now will only take minutes since the third code, which the President possesses but the North Koreans never ask for, is the only code left to hack.  Why don’t they force Eckhart to give it up?  Probably because their original plan to kidnap his young son to force him to choose is foiled by another former secret service agent Gerard Butler (who also co-produced this nonsense).

Butler blames himself for the harsh death of the First Lady (Ashley Judd), a weird sequence that opens the film.  While en route to a fundraiser under less than ideal weather conditions, the President’s car spirals out of control and hangs perilously over the edge of a bridge.  Eckhart is able to escape but before Judd’s seatbelt can be completely cut off the vehicle plunges into the hard ice below.

Now working a desk job in the Treasury Department, Butler springs into action during the air attack and like John McClane in several Die Hard movies, he singlehandedly reduces the odds of a nuclear holocaust.  (The North Koreans also want American troops and naval ships to be pulled out so they can invade the South and forcefully unite the two countries.)

Because the President and the Vice President are cooped up in the bunker, hawkish Speaker Of The House Morgan Freeman is the acting President.  Butler communicates with him, secret service director Angela Bassett, general Robert Forrester and a whole slew of Pentagon no-nothings through the President’s satellite phone.  (Gotta love the shocked deputy NSA director whose mouth is frequently open.)

There’s a very dumb sequence where Freeman and Forrester order six military helicopters to attack Korean snipers on the White House roof even though they’ve been warned about launching any kind of countermeasures against them.  (Kang isn’t opposed to executing hostages on the spot.)  When Butler warns them that the Koreans have acquired the top secret Hydra weapon and they should cancel this doomed offensive, he’s overruled but proven correct.  It’s only after most of the copters go down that Freeman finally calls it off.

The Koreans also request a fully fuelled chopper to make their eventual escape.  When it blows up suddenly, only a fool would think the threat is over.

Olympus Has Fallen was directed by Antoine Fuqua who directed Denzel Washington to his second Oscar in the sharp, cutting Training Day, a far more cynical film about American institutions.  Here, he prefers the offensive, simplistic story of Koreans bad, Americans good.  Any critiques about US government malfeasance are kept to a minimum and not dwelled on.  There is neither guilt nor outspoken regret for racist policies.  Just righteous anger against these evil infiltrators.  How dare they attack us when all we’ve done is help starve their people?

Imagine if the roles were reversed and it was America invading North Korea.

That said, the film suggests the national security state is run by incompetent idiots who can be easily outsmarted by more sophisticated foreigners they foolishly underestimate.  That is painfully on the mark even though the way it’s shown here is preposterous.  America is run by notorious paranoids and there’s no way this could ever be pulled off in the real world.

Setting aside its questionable politics, the film follows the Die Hard playbook way too closely.  Butler secretly takes out Korean goons whenever he can just like John McClane did to those thieving Germans.  Kang taunts him just like Hans Gruber.  Butler taunts him right back.  Butler frequently communicates with the Pentagon over a secure line undetected by the stereotypical baddies.  (Remember John McClane’s private walkie talkie convos with Sgt. Al, his contact on the outside?)  The botched US military response.  (Remember the FBI idiots in Die Hard?)  And of course, the obligatory code cracking scene.

The numerous fight scenes have their moments (is Butler an Alberto Del Rio mark?) but this is hardly a fun movie.  A whole lot of innocent people get brutally killed purely to put heat on villains that are walking stereotypes.  When you don’t care about the plot, you’re less invested in the gun play and fisticuffs.  Put simply, this is one of the more violent action films I’ve seen in recent years.

As always with movies like this, there is a countdown clock.  Once Cerberus is activated, a thoroughly fatigued Butler (does he ever stop to pee?) needs the override code to stop the coming of Armageddon within five minutes.  Why is it set for five instead of one or two?  Maybe to give the villains enough time to safely leave American airspace which, of course, doesn’t happen.  Or maybe to give that NSA guy with the shocked, open mouth plenty of time to recite a password even a toddler on their worst day could guess.  I’m not sure it was intended to be funny but by God it is.  Hashtag?  Backslash?  Are you fucking kidding me?

When the crisis finally ends, there is the obligatory speech where the fallen and the survivors are honoured and remembered for their sacrifices.  But then, there’s the usual sanctimonious bullshit about how America was attacked for its values and for its freedoms but not for its cruel bombing campaigns and economic sanctions against foreign countries it continually invades.  There’s more crap about how the US finds its united strength when it’s under assault (What is this?  Independence Day?) but no second guessing of its increasingly aggressive and inevitably failed empirical ambitions.

History is for suckers, apparently.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
4:04 a.m.

Published in: on April 10, 2018 at 4:04 am  Leave a Comment  

Shutter (2008)

At the beginning of Shutter, professional photographer Joshua Jackson marries a beautiful grade school teacher Rachael Taylor.  All seems perfect until they go on their Japanese honeymoon.

While driving to their cabin, Taylor plows into a mysterious woman who appears out of nowhere.  The car crashes into a nearby tree knocking out the occupants.  When the couple awakens, the woman has disappeared and there’s no blood on the road.  Taylor is frantic and guilt-ridden.  Bizarrely, neither think it’s a good idea to go to the hospital.

They eventually make it to their destination where Jackson reassures Taylor about the woman’s well-being and they cheerfully snap some outdoor photos together.  The honeymoon is short-lived, though, because the photog has been assigned to do some fashion shoots for his old colleagues in Tokyo.

While Jackson’s off directing Asian models for undetermined campaigns, a bored Taylor roams the city encountering nothing but hostility and indifference.  She also spots the mystery woman she hit with her car which causes her to freak out.

Jackson’s been spotting the woman, too, but for a while, he suspiciously keeps this information to himself.  Long before it’s properly exposed, we generally know why.

Taylor and Jackson both notice on their own a weird presence in their photos, a bright light that appears to be human.  His outdoor shoot is completely ruined because of this unwanted photobombing.

Apparently, this phenomenon is called spiritual photography.  Jackson’s assistant takes a curious Taylor to meet her ex-boyfriend, the publisher of a magazine completely devoted to the subject.  Although the photos in every issue are fraudulent (Taylor spots an employee photoshopping a fake ghost-like image in one such snap), the publisher shows her his growing collection of real ones.  (With so many authentic photos at his disposal, why does he keep them secret?  How come they’re not in the magazine?)  He also tells her about a recent profile they did on some renowned spiritualist who might shed some light, so to speak, on her problem.

By this point, Jackson has conceded to his newlywed bride that she’s not crazy nor is she delusional.  So, off they go to meet this eventually agitated spiritualist who points out what the audience has already figured out.

After doing some exploring and investigating on her own, Taylor confronts her husband about a photo she found.  Cornered, Jackson cops to having a past relationship with the mysterious presence in that photo, a cute Japanese translator he met during a shoot long before he met his new wife.  After her disapproving father died of an undisclosed illness, he claims she became more needy and clingy and he broke things off.  But she wouldn’t leave him alone.  She also started hurting herself to get his attention.

Back in the present, a couple of Jackson’s sleazy work colleagues become haunted by her presence as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why they’ve been targeted.

Completely spooked, the couple eventually decide to leave Japan and return to New York.  In a scene that defies logic, Taylor makes a shocking, predictable discovery.  Let’s just say what’s revealed is in extremely bad taste despite some thankful restraint.  Once our suspicions about Jackson are confirmed, we are baffled by his rationalization for his actions (watching is still participating, dude) and why he kept incriminating evidence lying around.  Taylor finds out the hard way she married a stupid asshole.

Shutter is one of a growing number of bad American remakes of Asian thrillers.  It’s not as awful as The Grudge but it’s certainly worse than The Ring and The Uninvited.

The film takes way too long to get going.  There’s neither an unsettling atmosphere nor genuine tension.  And because the plot is completely unsurprising, there’s no suspense, either.  Rachael Taylor has an appealing presence (she looks great in close-ups, Gene Siskel’s definition of a movie star) but her character takes forever to figure out what the audience already knows.

Jackson isn’t charming enough to land a babe like Taylor and he isn’t believable enough as the creep he turns out to be once all is revealed.  And because the mystery woman is portrayed as a psychotic heel for much of the movie, by the time it’s confirmed that she’s been seriously wronged, we question why she spares the one person who could’ve saved her.

In the end, it’s not clear to me who suffers the worst fate.  The man who can’t electrocute himself to death, the spirit with low self-esteem who still wants to be with him or the viewer.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
3:52 a.m.

Published in: on April 10, 2018 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Hide And Seek (2005)

Hide And Seek is one of those pretentious thrillers that deludes itself into thinking it’s really something clever instead of the generic, unscary mess it actually is.

Robert De Niro and Amy Irving are an unhappily married couple with a young daughter (Dakota Fanning). After swallowing some pills with wine and having one last intimate moment with her kid before bedtime, she has an awkward conversation with her psychologist husband before retreating to the bathtub surrounded by candlelight.

Hours later, when he realizes she’s not in bed with him, a worried De Niro arises and discovers her dead body floating in her own blood.  Fanning stands in the bathroom doorway watching him weep and is never the same.

Now mostly silent and blankly staring, the blue-eyed, dark-haired Fanning is looked after by De Niro’s former protégé, the kindly Famke Janssen.  De Niro is planning to move her out of the city and into the country.  Janssen strongly opposes this idea because the child needs stability, not more upheaval.  De Niro is convinced that getting her as far away from the scene of her mother’s death is the best thing for her.

Because it’s the off-season, there aren’t many people around in their new neighbourhood, just the nosy, by-the-book sheriff (Dylan Baker), a forgetful real estate agent (David Chandler) and the friendly Melissa Leo and Robert John Burke, a couple in mourning.  Over time, we learn they had a daughter who looked exactly like Fanning which explains Burke’s interest in her (and all the toys in their living room).  Leo and Burke appear to be in an abusive relationship but curiously, the movie doesn’t dwell on it.  De Niro offers his professional services to Leo but she declines and the matter is dropped altogether.

As soon as they arrive here, Fanning starts acting strangely.  Once inseparable from her beloved doll Alex, she suddenly abandons it.  (De Niro finds it in the trash one night.)  And she claims to have a new friend, “Charlie”, who becomes a bad influence.

De Niro meets Elizabeth Shue, a hot divorcee looking after her niece.  When he invites them both to the new house, the niece is scared away but Shue comes back only to face resistance from Fanning.

Meanwhile, De Niro keeps having a recurring nightmare about New Year’s Eve.  We’re teased with little snippets here and there until we learn the full truth.  Some nights, at exactly 2:06 a.m., he suddenly wakes up only to walk towards the bathroom to ultimately discover a message written in blood and sometimes a dead body in the tub.  Up to that point, we’re led to believe Fanning is a Creepy Kid being manipulated by some supernatural force with a venomous streak and De Niro, in deep denial, is too stupid to see it.

Then comes that ridiculous twist which undermines everything.  It’s more than obvious that the filmmakers were trying to imitate M. Night Shyamalan but they clearly lack the skill and care to pull it off successfully.

Consider the scene where Shue shows up unannounced, lets herself in when no one answers the door and goes upstairs to try to make peace with Fanning.  While that’s going on, we see an oblivious De Niro listening to music in his headphones as he once again jots down his misguided observations about his troubled daughter.  Fanning’s in the middle of a game of hide and seek and when Shue opens the closet door, she gets a big surprise.

Later, when that scene is revisited, we find out who was in the closet.  But it’s just not possible without rewriting history which is precisely what happens.  (Otherwise, one person can’t be in two places at the same time.)

When you think about it, there’s actually a twist within the twist.  We think the reason the Amy Irving character dies is because of an exposed indiscretion but it’s really because she has a much closer relationship to Fanning.  Unfortunately, we barely get to know these characters in the abbreviated opening sequence and therefore feel emotionally disconnected from them, even before the inevitable tragedy.  We’re not as moved as we should be going forward.

As a result, Hide And Seek begins as a disappointingly bland, uninvolving melodrama but by the time of the big reveal it diminishes itself as a routine and deeply dishonest slasher flick.  De Niro was far scarier and more menacing as the vengeful Max Cady in the brilliant Cape Fear remake.  Here, I was baffled by his contradictory actions and complete lack of self-awareness.  Also puzzling is Fanning’s behaviour around him.  If she doesn’t tremble in his presence, why should we?

And what about that dopey ending?  The movie can’t seem to make up its mind about Fanning’s own state of mind as it reverses itself once again, just to tease the idea of a possible sequel which, thank God, has not been made.

All horror films involve some kind of emotional manipulation.  But when they start outright lying to you, that’s a betrayal.  Hide And Seek never levels with its audience and while it may think it gives sly clues to the big twist long before it happens, it’s really just lying to itself.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, March 2, 2018
10:19 p.m.

Published in: on March 2, 2018 at 10:19 pm  Leave a Comment