Over The Top

In the very funny documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films, there is much deserved mockery for the often low-brow, low budget hokum that became the production company’s infamous trademark.  Near the end of its life in the late 1980s, Cannon, led by the enthusiastic but often out-of-touch Menahem Golan & Yorum Globus, was running on fumes.  Its last batch of cinematic offerings did Warner Bros., the distributor of many of them, no favours.

Their Superman sequel, The Quest For Peace, killed the Christopher Reeve franchise.  Masters Of The Universe did not launch its own, despite a closing credit tease for one.  And although Bloodsport thrusted Jean-Claude Van Damme’s flexible physicality into the mainstream, it also unleashed his pitiful acting.

But no late 80s Cannon Film epitomizes the deteriorated state of the company more perfectly than Over The Top, the most honestly titled movie they ever made.  As humourously noted in Electric Boogaloo, Director Golan legitimately believed that young movie fans would flock to a thoroughly predictable story about arm wrestling.  He somehow managed to throw a lot of money at star Sylvester Stallone who not only foolishly accepted the lead, he also co-wrote the script.  Having finally seen it 30 years after its underwhelming theatrical stint, I’m amazed he didn’t have it removed.

Stallone plays Lincoln Hawk, a truck driver who abandoned his wife and child for reasons that are hinted at but never fully explained.  His son, Mike (David Mendenhall), has just graduated from a military prep school.  When he’s summoned to the colonel’s office after the ceremony, he’s not happy to see Linc.  In fact, because he’s never met him before, his dad has to show him an old wedding photo of him and his mom before he reluctantly agrees to climb into his battered old truck.

Shocked to see so many posted photos of himself on the interior, the spoiled Mike, who initially refers to Linc as “sir”, can’t contain his bitterness or his obnoxiousness about his absent father and his poor eating habits.  (He never got all those letters Linc sent to him as he was growing up.)  At one point, he feigns being sick in order to jump out and literally run out into oncoming traffic.  After declaring his hatred for Linc, ever the optimist, his father says this is fine, at least it’s a starting point.

It doesn’t take long before Mike starts warming to Linc especially when he lets him drive his truck.  (He’s not exactly 16.  Or licensed.)  But he’s soon all weepy again after he’s forced to partake in a best two-out-of-three arm wrestling contest with some punk they meet in a restaurant arcade.  Of course, Mike loses round one.  But after an obligatory pep talk from pops (he’s no Burgess Meredith), he takes the next two and all is well again.

Then, he’s temporarily kidnapped by his grandfather’s goons.  An overly tanned and mysteriously wealthy Robert Loggia wants custody which can only truly happen if Linc is completely out of the picture.  (Grandparents don’t have automatic parental rights.)  Linc’s wife (Susan Blakely) is hospitalized awaiting heart surgery and is the real reason Linc & Mike are being forced to belatedly bond.  After retrieving him from grandpa’s goon squad, by the time they make it to the hospital, unsurprisingly, it’s too late.  Why she needed the surgery in the first place is never explained, nor why it went wrong.

Blaming his dad for driving him here instead of taking a flight (shouldn’t he blame his dead mother since this was her idea?), Mike turns into an angry cry-baby again and cabs it back to grandpa’s estate.  After hilariously ramming his already battered truck through the gate (the guards won’t let him through) and front door of his property, Loggia’s personal secretary convinces him to sign away his paternal rights while he’s in lock up.  Linc can’t sell his temporarily-back-to-being-skeptical son that he’s fit to raise him into adulthood.

But then the kid inevitably finds those elusive letters Linc sent him and all is forgiven.  Stealing one of his grandfather’s vehicles, he joyrides to the airport, hides on a plane with the luggage and joyrides the rest of the way to Vegas where his dad has entered the world arm wrestling championships at the Hilton.  Having sold his truck for 7000 smackers, Linc is somehow able to legally bet it all on himself.  (What about entrance fees?)  But no worries, a brand new truck, along with a lot of dough, is offered to the winner.

Because he has an earlier encounter with five-time world champion “Bull” Hurley (the hilariously bugged-eyed Rick Zumwalt who resembles Big Show during his Fu Manchu period) at a local dive, we know who the two finalists of this supremely silly competition will be.  And despite Bull being undefeated in five years, there is zero doubt about the outcome.

Made for 25 million, Over The Top couldn’t even make back its budget.  But it was able to win Razzie Awards.  It’s not hard to understand why.  There are more laughs here than in most comedies.  Watching these enormous men grunt and groan their way through suspenseless arm wrestling matches, in between some of them cutting promos on each other, almost all of which end in mere seconds, cannot be taken seriously at all.

The soulless music certainly doesn’t help.  Despite the contributions of Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, Sammy Hagar and Eddie Money, there’s not a single good song on the soundtrack.  While they’re riding in Linc’s truck, one such misfire is heard on his radio.  Linc likes it so when Mike keeps turning it off, he keeps turning it back on again.  His son eventually gives up.

As it turns out, so did the filmmakers.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
5:06 p.m.

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Published in: on November 21, 2017 at 5:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fifty Shades Darker

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

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

And yet, this is not a dealbreaker for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neon Maniacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out comes the squirtgun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alien: Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Perry: Part Of Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolf Creek 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolf Creek

How can we be afraid of Mick Taylor when he looks like a middle-aged Harland Williams and sounds like a pitchman for Foster’s Ale?  With his dorky laugh, long sideburns, cowboy hat and phony folksy demeanour, he temporarily fools three young, desperate, stranded vacationers into thinking he’s their lifesaver.

And to think, all of what ultimately happens to them could’ve easily been prevented if one of these victims wasn’t so cheap.

Wolf Creek opens with an Australian bloke named Ben (Nathan Phillips) buying a car for a road trip with his two comely British companions, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi).  The sleazy salesman thinks he’s on the verge of having a threeway with them which, disappointingly, never happens.  (Ben eventually has a very brief makeout session with Kristy who initially denies having a mutual attraction but that’s it.  These party animals are remarkably chaste.)

For a mere 1500 smackers, he buys a used piece of junk that barely works.  Right after he purchases it, an old mechanic has to get it running again.  A very bad sign.

After reconnecting with the women and enjoying one last night of drinking with the locals, they’re off to see the famous Wolf Creek crater in the Australian Outback.  Cinematographer Will Gibson, who shot the film on Hi-Def Video which was later transferred to 35mm, captures this abandoned, breathtaking environment with expansive wide angles that showcase its endless enormity and natural beauty.  That run-down red car looks awfully miniscule in the vastness of this isolated wonderland.

Their curiosity and sense of adventure now satisfied, they’re ready to leave.  But there’s a problem.  The fucking car won’t start.  (Of course.)  Even worse, none of them know how to get it working again.  Stuck in the middle of overcast, rumbling conditions and very far from civilization, as night falls, they decide to stay put until the morning.

But long before the sun rises, Mick Taylor (a hammy John Jarratt) arrives.  Suspiciously helpful (he won’t charge them for making any necessary repairs) and conveniently in the area, even though he’s heading back in the opposite direction they want to go, they agree to be towed back to his place.

Even before his inevitable heel turn, you know this is a very bad idea.  After hours of impatient riding, they end up in some abandoned mineral mine jolly ol’ Mick now calls home.

After dozing off, Liz wakes up not by the makeshift fire outside but inside one of the steel huts all tied up.  A bloodied, pantsless Kristy is heard screaming in the distance as Mick continues to torture her.  Meanwhile, somewhere on the property, Ben is crucified next to cages filled with salivating, barking dogs.  (An innocent question: how did Mick manage to move each of these victims to their new locations without any of them waking up?)

When Liz slices off her plastic zip-loc handcuffs and discovers Kristy’s fate, she creates a diversion to try to rescue her.  She manages to wound Mick (how do you miss his forehead from point blank range?) but stupidly, not kill him.  Tearing off in his pick-up truck with her traumatized buddy, she makes another preventable blunder.  With a somehow revived Mick chasing her in another car (he has plenty to choose from), it’s decided to make it look like they crashed and died in the crater.  Did they not think he would go down to make sure they were actually inside?

An even dumber decision is made when Liz leaves a wounded Kristy behind to go back to the mine to steal another car.  It’s during this return trip that we learn more about Mick’s criminal history.  (Decomposing carcasses and skeletons are everywhere.)  He loves to hoard mementos from his many victims and post media clippings of their mysterious disappearances.  Liz examines one of several camcorders he’s confiscated to discover his pre-torture patter is canned.  He uses the same lines every time.

Thinking she still has minutes to spare, she turns the key into the ignition of one stolen car and then we get an unscary homage to Halloween.  (Another innocent question: how in the hell did Mick manage to get in the back seat so fast (remember, he was at the crater in the previous scene) without detection?)

Wolf Creek makes the cardinal mistake of taking forever to set up this inevitable dilemma for Ben, Kristy and Liz.  The filmmakers think that the more time we spend with them, the more we will be concerned for their well-being.  In fact, the opposite happens.  Because they’re not fully developed characters who don’t say interesting things, have zero wit and often have poor judgment, we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to be put in danger.

Nearly an hour goes by before the horror starts and it’s not really that effective.  How can it be when you have a goofy cartoon character as your villain?  While I appreciated the fact that he isn’t stupid (he sounds like a hick but could easily be employed by the CIA), Mick Taylor is no Michael Myers.  The more he yammers on in Aussie speak, the more I appreciated the masked man’s muteness.  In the original Halloween, Myers had an eerie, disturbing presence.  He only spoke in belaboured breathing.  Taylor, on the other hand, never shuts up and is a generic slasher/torturer.  Furthermore, his motive is a bit unclear to me.  Why does he torture and kill in the first place and why does he collect belongings of his many victims when he doesn’t appear to have any actual use for any of them?  At least Leatherface was always in need of a new face.

I will say this for Wolf Creek, though.  It doesn’t cheat.  It discards the usual horror cliches (false alarms; jumps in the frame; suddenly loud staccato music beats) for an attempt at atmosphere.  Unfortunately, because we don’t have any emotional connection to the heroes, we could care less what happens to them. Released in the middle of the ugly torture porn era, it is thankfully somewhat restrained in its violence.  (Hostel and the Saw franchise are far more explicitly gruesome.)  That said, I still cringed at certain moments.  I do wonder if one scene was a tribute to Miami Blues.

Unlike most of its predecessors, Wolf Creek doesn’t end the way you expect.  But surprise or no surprise and regardless of how close it resembles “actual events” (spoiler: you’re being snookered on that front), there’s no escaping its considerable weaknesses.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
7:43 p.m.

Published in: on September 6, 2017 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tales From The Hood

In this potentially transformative era of Black Lives Matter, Antifa and We Charge Genocide, a film like Tales From The Hood deserves a second look.  An old-school horror anthology heavily saturated with anti-racist political messaging, it failed to make much of an impression on me when I snuck in to see it at the long gone Centre Mall Cinemas the night of June 1, 1995.

Many years after that screening, I often wondered if I blew it.  Was I wrong to be so harsh in my rejection?  The Rodney King debacle was still fresh in my mind.  Regrettably, I remember not being terribly sympathetic towards him.  Did my lack of context, my denial of the full truth somehow play a role in my ultimately panning this movie?

Having just screened it for a second time on Blu-ray, sadly I find myself reliving my disappointment.  No, I wasn’t too harsh.  This well-intentioned statement simply lacks conviction.

King had a long history with alcohol abuse which carried on long enough that he ended up being cast on Celebrity Rehab.  It was watching him on that show that I finally understood his pain, his trauma, and his isolation.  Rehab humanized him in the way previous media coverage hadn’t.  I liked him.  I rooted for him to get better.  He never deserved the horrific beating four racist white police officers needlessly administered to him that fateful, life-changing night in early 1991.  I wish I had acknowledged that in real time.  The lingering effects of that moment led to his untimely death at age 47 in 2012.

In one of Tales From The Hood’s five short segments, three white police officers (Wings Hauser, Michael Massee, Duane Whitaker) start wailing on a black man they pull over as Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit is heard.  But this isn’t some ordinary joe they decide to randomly brutalize.  It’s a powerful politician (Tom Wright) whose efforts to root out corruption in the local police department are resulting in ruined careers.

Unfortunately, the scene isn’t all that effective emotionally.  These particular officers aren’t scary.  They’re reckless boobs.  Their violence is predictable, not shocking.  And it’s not well choreographed, either.  You just don’t feel the impact of the blows like you should.  It should be much more intense.

Witnessing all of this is a young black cop (Anthony Griffith) who confirms through a licence plate check who this man really is and attempts to intervene on his behalf.  When the beating stops, the white cops say they’ll drive him to the hospital.  But what they really do is cover up a murder in such a way that it’s surprising there isn’t a scene of mass protests immediately afterwards.

Now a disillusioned alcoholic, a guilt-ridden Griffith leaves the force and is commanded by the spirit of Wright to lure the three officers to his grave site.  In a scene with an homage of sorts to Carrie, you can pretty much guess what happens next.

And that’s another problem with Tales From The Hood as a whole.  There aren’t a lot of surprises.  Every set-up to each of the stories is essentially the same.  Terrible people, sometimes white racists, other times violent black men, do terrible things to mostly innocent people and they all meet a grisly demise that is not even remotely terrifying.  It’s pure cinematic revenge porn.

In another segment, pro-Confederate politician and “original American” Corbin Bernsen is repeatedly warned that the old plantation house he’s living in is haunted by the presence of former slaves who live on in tiny dolls that wouldn’t be out of place in a Puppet Master movie.  He has nothing but prejudiced contempt for black people except, curiously, for the black man (Roger Smith) advising his election campaign, one of a number of black characters who pay the price for associating with powerful scum or not doing nearly enough to combat them.

Bernsen’s overtly bigoted character is a bit too broad and cartoonish to pose much of a threat, and as a result, we don’t take him seriously.  He’s a little too easy to dethrone.

In another segment, a young boy (Brandon Hammond) struggles with the two “monsters” in his life, a school bully and his abusive stepdad (a seriously miscast David Alan Grier who lacks a domineering presence) who he envisions as an actual demon.  Director/co-writer Rusty Cundieff plays his skeptical yet concerned teacher who witnesses firsthand what happens when no one is looking.  The boy’s flirty mom (Paula Jai Parker) is another of Grier’s unfortunate victims.

The boy learns from a schoolmate how to vanquish his enemies.  You draw a picture of them and then you simply crumple up the paper which in turn crushes their bones and twists their limbs.  It’s a surprisingly unsatisfying gimmick, especially during the story’s woefully tepid climax.

Another story involves an unrepentant gangbanger nicknamed Crazy K (Lamont Bentley), an angry young man with a long trail of dead bodies in his past.  Back in prison yet again, he is selected for a secret government program that looks a lot like something Alex the Droog goes through in A Clockwork Orange.

This isn’t “rehab”, though, it’s torture that sees him locked in a tiny cage next to a warmongering white supremacist (Rick Dean) and forced to view images of his murderous crimes juxtaposed to real-life photos of lynchings while strapped into a spinning contraption wearing nothing but bikini underwear as gangsta rap plays in the background.  (Maybe this is where Strange Fruit should’ve appeared instead of the police brutality segment.)  If the images don’t make the message clear, the ethically challenged doctor (Rosalind Cash) in charge of all this spells it out for him.  Why do you keep killing brothers?  You’re making the white supremacists very happy.

Unsurprisingly, Crazy K is defiant and not giving in to this simplistic government guilt trip.  (He kills young black men much in the same way Italian mobsters kill off other Italian mobsters.  They’re a threat to his bottom line.)  Then, the movie undermines this part of the story by employing the very tired “it was just a dream” cliché.

Wrapped around these overwrought segments is the story of three other gangbangers (Joe Torry, Sam Monroe, De’Aundre Bonds) lured to a possible drug deal with a mysterious, organ-playing mortician (Clarence Williams III) who is more weird than frightening.  As the wild-haired, wild-eyed impresario delays and delays by opening up coffins and calmly teeing up intros for all these segments, the young men get more and more impatient and agitated wondering where “the shit” is.  By the time we reach the finale, we realize it’s all been a ruse.  Those are not spectacular special effects.

Tales From The Hood was wrongly sold as a parody which partially explains why it was a modest theatrical grosser.  The other reason for its failure is it doesn’t have the heart to be truly scary.  Complex issues like white supremacy, police brutality, domestic violence, street crime, the war on drugs and torture are not for the squeamish or the ignorant.  They understandably make us uncomfortable because they force us to confront our own racist, violent history and ongoing present.

But in this movie, they’re nothing more than thinly sketched clotheslines to hang bad supernatural plots on.  Plus, it’s impossible to thoughtfully explore these crucial subjects when each story only runs between 15 and 20 minutes apiece, a frustrating limitation of the anthology format.  Consider how much more effective the story of the bad cops & the crusading politician could’ve been had there been more time for a suspenseful build-up.

Heavy-handed in its messaging (Corbin Bernsen’s racist politico literally whacks one of the ex-slave dolls with the American flag, wink wink) and not at all interested in challenging and shaking up its audience with actual, truthful ferocity, Tales From The Hood ends up being a witless, politically neutered Tales From The Crypt.

It should’ve been so much more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 31, 2017
3:35 a.m.

Published in: on August 31, 2017 at 3:35 am  Leave a Comment