Bird On A Wire (1990)

I have this test for a certain kind of actor.  If you can make me forget you’re an asshole in real life for two hours, then I have to admit you’re scary good at your job.

For a long time, Mel Gibson passed this test.  A raging xenophobe & homophobe and a violent misogynist off-screen, he could turn on the charm rather easily on-screen.  It helps explain why he got away with being a terrifying abuser for so long.

Take his role in Bird On A Wire, for instance.  In the film, he plays a paranoid pacifist hiding in plain sight through the FBI’s witness relocation program.  15 years ago, while seeking Acapulco Gold with a pal in Mexicali, he got entangled with a couple of crooked federal drug agents.  They roped them into doing a major drug deal which went horribly wrong.  One of the narcs (David Carradine) killed his friend and a federal agent.  After three months in jail, Gibson testified against him and he’s been moving around the country with different names and accents ever since.  (Apparently, he briefly ran Columbia Pictures, a funny inside joke.)

When we first meet him, he’s a bored, isolated, prank-lovin’, pony-tailed Southern mechanic in a Detroit gas station.  One rainy night, his past begins to catch up with him.  A customer in a BMW pulls up and the minute they lock eyes, he knows his cover’s been blown.

Goldie Hawn, a high-powered corporate attorney, is the driver.  Thinking they were on the verge of marriage 15 years ago, she was led to believe he died in a plane crash.  She even went to his memorial service.  When confronted, Gibson plays dumb, pretending he doesn’t have a tattoo and he’s a Vietnam vet.  Hawn knows better.

In a panic, Gibson tries to re-connect with the FBI agent who has overseen his case.  But he’s retired now and, as it turns out, rather senile.  So, he’s put in touch with Stephen Tobolowsky, the worst possible guy he could talk to.

Shortly thereafter, a now paroled David Carradine (yeah, that’s believable) and an indicted Bill Duke (who escaped during the ill-fated drug deal debacle) pay him an unexpected visit.  (They need to eliminate him so they can get back to smuggling.)  But because Carradine is gabby, Gibson survives with only butt pain, thanks to Hawn’s impeccably timed return.  (Hesitant villains with bad aim are the lamest villains of all.)

For the rest of the movie, the formerly devoted couple alternate between bickering, laughing, running, driving, flying, starving, ogling and, inevitably, screwing, all while continually tipping off their whereabouts and yet implausibly avoiding serious calamity.  (Gibson gets shot three times but never in a dangerous area.)  Hawn is pissed about being kept in the dark all this time but, even though she has a new boyfriend, she never got over Gibson.  Despite having a fling with a gun-totin’ veternarian (Joan Severence in one of her better performances), he feels exactly the same about Hawn.

It’s a delicate balancing act trying to make a funny action film, let alone one with a dickhead leading man, and Bird On A Wire can’t pull it off.  The chase sequences mostly lack genuine excitement and consistent comic ingenuity.  There’s a really funny moment, though, when Gibson makes a cheeky observation about Hawn as they’re climbing up a ladder, but that’s a rarity.  Most of the gags just don’t work.

Gibson and Hawn have such an easy, natural chemistry that when they argue, to a certain extent it feels a bit phony.  Shouldn’t she be more relieved than angry he’s still alive?  And even though he’s an old-school hippie who still sings Dylan at the top of his lungs and she’s now a loaded capitalist stuck in a dead-end relationship with some overworked nerd, their oppositional tension isn’t believable, I don’t care how many times she mumbles.  When they spend the night in a crummy motel (which inspires a couple of laughs), all it takes is a dick joke and one night of intimacy to make Hawn let go of her mostly contrived grievances.

All the while, Carradine, Duke and Tobolowsky continue to stalk them until the expected final confrontation.  After finally reconnecting with the now-retired FBI agent, Gibson and Hawn are advised to make their way to a nearby zoo.  Gibson used to work here during a past identity and he’s expecting to find a cache of weapons in the control room.  Good thing he knows how to unlock cages.

I first watched Bird On A Wire on my 15th birthday during its 1990 theatrical run.  I kinda liked it (I still love The Neville Brothers’ catchy Leonard Cohen cover) and was blissfully unaware of Gibson’s real-life dark side.  Now in my early 40s (and knowing a lot more about his general awfulness), I understand today why critics were not as enamoured.

There aren’t many surprises here except maybe the denseness of the heroes.  As paranoid as Gibson is in the film, he’s not very smart.  After being wrongly accused of murder early on, he doesn’t exactly keep a low profile.  In fact, he doesn’t change his appearance at all.  Plus, he drags Hawn to some of his former stomping grounds.  Tobolowsky and company correctly anticipate his next moves because they know all his former identities, and it takes him forever to finally realize that.  Hawn isn’t much help to his cause.  At one point, she makes it worse.

Even though Gibson is far from truly hateful in the film (he’s more of a reckless, harmless goof than anything else), he does offer an unnecessary impression of a sissy hairdresser, a tired stereotype.  I have to admit that when he gets beaten up and shot at, I wasn’t terribly upset, even though his character is more principled than the actor who plays him.

There’s an unwritten rule in Hollywood that assholes are often cast as heroes and actual gentlemen play the nastiest villains.  There are exceptions, of course, but not in the case of Mel Gibson.  If Bird On A Wire had been a lot funnier and smarter, the charm con that he long specialized in would’ve prevailed once more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 30, 2017
6:40 p.m.

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cat People (1942)

Irena has a secret.  And it’s slowly destroying her will to live.

French actress Simone Simon plays the Serbian beauty, an enigmatic artist who doesn’t believe in her own talent.  At a zoo, she meets Oliver (Kent Smith who looks like Sting in certain shots), a corny, overbearing designer of ships and barges for a construction company.  She’s been trying to sketch a caged black panther but keeps throwing away her efforts.

One such crumbled toss attracts his attention.  (She misses the garbage bin so he throws it in for her.)  After pointing to a poetic sign as a way of flirting with her (insert eyeroll here), he makes his move, doing the old “I never met an artist before” routine.

Within minutes, he’s walking her home, wondering if he could write her a letter to ask her out.  (Really?  You’re talking to her right now.)  She’s not feeling it.  So he suggests a second letter.  (Red flag, toots.)  But then, she suddenly invites him in for tea.  After making it up the stairs to her apartment, she says he’s her first friend in America.

They’ve been talking for three minutes.

So begins the original Cat People, one of the weirdest horror films I’ve ever seen.

After noticing her peculiar perfume, Oliver sits quietly in the dark with a lit cigarette as his new lady friend starts humming for some reason.  As he goes to put it out, a lion from the nearby zoo roars.  Irena doesn’t mind.  Like the darkness, the noise soothes her.  But don’t get her started on those lady panthers.

When she finally turns on the light, he lights another cigarette (Jesus, buddy, think of your lungs) and notices an unusual figurine on her table, a man on a horse holding a stabbed kitty by the sword.  Irena returns to tell him quite the tale about that very man.

Long story short, her village people were enslaved and the guy on the horse rescued them. But he discovered “dreadful things”, like those who were worshipping Satan.  Plus, “the wisest and most wicked” managed to flee.  What she doesn’t mention is that she can somehow turn into a cat.

In no way does any of this turn off Oliver who shortly thereafter decides to buy Irena a kitten.  Because nothing says love like giving someone unnecessary responsibility.  Unfortunately, human cats and actual pussies do not get along too well.  So, it’s back to the pet shop to make a substitute.  But none of the other animals in the store like her, either.  Oliver ultimately gets a bird.  Not a smart choice, as it turns out.

Within the first ten minutes of this movie, Irena and Oliver are already declaring their love for each other.  (I’m pretty sure they’ve only had two dates.)  And despite not even swapping spit a single time, the domineering fellow already declares they will be married.  (Gee, have you ever heard of asking, pinhead?)

At their restaurant reception following the unseen ceremony (where pig heads are prominently displayed in the window), one of his work buddies notes to Alice (Jane Randolph), a fellow co-worker, that Mr. Impatient is now suddenly having second thoughts about the marriage because, get this, he thinks Irena is “odd”.

Gee, what tipped him off?

Meanwhile, as the movie drags on, Alice (who I originally thought was a lesbian), suddenly declares her love for Oliver after he confesses by the water cooler at work that this Serbian chick with the French accent is ruining his happy streak.  He’s so white he’s never been miserable.  Eventually, he admits he loves her, too.  But after a late night work session, when they part, they shake hands!  What a perv.

By this point, Irena has seen a shrink who thinks she’s full of shit (Oliver also doesn’t believe her village people story) and feels threatened by the presence of Alice.  You see, two things turn Irena into a murderous cat: a sex drive and jealousy.  She can’t consummate her marriage because it’ll turn her into a killer.  She also starts stalking her romantic rival on foot and on the phone.  In other words, if she can’t have sex with her husband, no one can.

When she’s not doing that, she’s hanging out at the zoo confronting that same black panther from the opening scene.  Feeling similiarly imprisoned, albeit in a more metaphorical sense, she makes a fateful decision that explains that one sketch left behind outside its cage.

Cat People has an undeserved reputation as a horror classic.  It’s not scary, it’s ridiculous.  Were it not for its magnificent black & white cinematography and set design, it would be much worse.  Because it only runs for 73 minutes, the relationship between Irena & Oliver is expedited to the point of absurdity.  Despite its groggy pacing, the movie rushes through their courtship to get to the love triangle with Alice.  The actors try their hardest to sell this nonsense and to their credit, there are no unintentional laughs.

The filmmakers really want us to suspend our disbelief but that is an impossible task.  Irena’s nightmare involving cartoon cats will never be scary.  Neither are the stalking scenes which lack genuine tension.  (We never feel Alice or her husband are in any serious jeopardy.)  And we could care less about the unsympathetic Oliver and his dilemma about whether he should get an annulment or have his wife institutionalized so he can finally hook up with the other woman.  (You can’t divorce an insane person?  Really?)  Why is he hanging around Irena when he has horny Alice at the office?  Why is he drawn to someone who doesn’t want to fuck?

Like The Blair Witch Project many decades later, Cat People asks you to be scared of something you can’t see.  It had to go this route because the budget was small.  As it turns out, so is its imagination.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, April 27, 2017
3:56 a.m.

Published in: on April 27, 2017 at 3:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Blair Witch

It’s clear right from the beginning that the cast of Blair Witch haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project.  As a result, they make the exact same mistakes as the doomed characters in the earlier film.

Strike that.  They do see the ending online, thanks to a couple of rednecks who post it on YouTube.  In no way, however, does watching this footage discourage them at all from what they’re about to do.

The fate of Heather Donahue’s character has long been an obsession of her paramedic brother, James (James Allen McCune).  Because her body was never found, he dumbly believes there’s still a chance she’s lost somewhere in the seemingly vast Black Hills Forest.  He was only four when she decided to make a documentary about the mysterious Blair Witch of Maryland.  Now a grown man, he foolishly decides to conduct a search party of his own.  The authorities were unable to locate her and her two fellow crew members, along with numerous other victims over the centuries.

His longtime pal, Peter (Brandon Scott), convinces mutual friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who’s making a documentary of her own, to come with them and cover the search.  Peter’s girlfriend, Ashley (Corbin Reid), tags along, as well.

Rewriting history a bit, we learn that the footage of Heather’s demise was discovered by Lane (Wes Robinson who looks like the love child of Miles Teller and Sean Penn) and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry), not law enforcement.  The foursome make a stop at their house before hitting the forest to find out where exactly they made their discovery.  Curious themselves, Lane & his gal, who have lived in Maryland their entire lives, won’t divulge the location unless they get to join the party.  Peter, a black man, isn’t too thrilled with the idea especially after spotting the couple’s Confederate flag proudly displayed in their living room.

Despite clearly seeing someone else in the Heather video, James’s friends are highly skeptical of this Blair Witch business.  As Lane and Talia take them deep into Black Hills, they offer a little background.  One such story makes Peter laugh out loud.  Guess who the witch kills first.

As they make their way through a cold creek, Ashley steps on a piece of glass.  But even after her foot gets the first aid treatment, the cut never heals (in fact, it spreads up her leg) and she eventually falls ill.  After spending the night in their makeshift camp site, they awaken to discover those mysterious branch symbols from the first film and that it’s 2 p.m.  Freaked out, they all decide to leave, the one and only sensible decision they make.

But once Lane confesses that he and his gal pal made the symbols themselves, Heather’s brother and his friends suddenly aren’t so scared anymore and stupidly decide to go back.  The rednecks decide to bolt on their own.

But, of course, once you enter Black Hills Forest, you can never leave (unless you’re law enforcement or discover raw footage, apparently).  The original foursome learn this the hard way when they make a second attempt to leave.  Their hours of walking bring them right back to the camp site.  Eventually, the sun stops coming up.

A starved, fatigued Lane and his equally starved, fatigued girlfriend suddenly return at one point claiming they’ve been wandering around the forest completely lost for almost a week.  (It’s only been a day.)  Inevitably, the gang gets separated as one by one they disappear into nothingness.

Like The Blair Witch Project, all roads lead to the witch’s decrepit abode, the same place Heather discovered before she went missing.  (On a dark and stormy night, it curiously materializes out of nowhere.)  In fact, Lisa relives part of the original’s ending shot for shot before literally bumping into Heather’s brother who runs in first hoping to somehow find his sister in this rundown, wooden labyrinth.

Blair Witch is the third and hopefully final chapter of this disappointing series.  The overrated 1999 original was followed by a conventional dud called Book Of Shadows in 2000.  It’s clear the only reason we have number three nearly 20 years later is because the found footage horror genre, which The Blair Witch Project helped popularize, has long since gone mainstream mostly thanks to Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield.

With the notable exceptions of The Visit and The Last Exorcism, I have not been a chief supporter of these types of films.  They’re often contrived, not terribly scary and stupid.  Blair Witch very much resembles that remark.

Yes, the technology has advanced quite a bit since the original.  Instead of just camcorders and walkie talkies, this time around we also get earcams with GPS and even a drone that predictably gets stuck in a tree.  What we don’t get are interesting, intelligent characters and a clever story.

The movie isn’t as bad as it could’ve been because of a welcome lack of gore and the effective art direction.  But by God, how many false jump scares do we need to endure?  How many shaky, POV shots?  In order to have this ill-fated trip to the forest take place, the characters have to be mostly ignorant about the events of The Blair Witch Project.  If they do have a strong sense of history, we have no movie.  Smart people wouldn’t set foot in Black Hills.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 16, 2017
3:05 p.m.

Published in: on April 16, 2017 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Purple Rain

Purple Rain is all about seduction, how it spots you in the crowd, seeks you out and grabs you until you can’t resist despite some understandable reservations.  Look past the appealing surface and you will see uncomfortable darkness.  But it’s not so easy to let go.

It’s how The Kid attracts the immediate attention of Apollonia, even if he doesn’t always treat her with respect.  It’s how the womanizing Morris Day lures her with a career push even though she isn’t the slightest bit attracted to him.  It’s how he convinces the owner of the First Avenue club to consider dropping The Kid’s back-up band, The Revolution, as a regular act in favour of a girl group he’s putting together.

It’s how The Kid’s abusive father keeps his terrified mother from fleeing.  It’s why The Kid can’t help but imitate his misogynistic behaviour.  It’s how The Kid keeps The Revolution together despite grumblings about his tardiness, cold demeanour and not being open to band members’ song ideas.  And it’s how he captivates club audiences with his considerable charisma and untouchable musicianship, an indisputable fact that even Morris Day & The Time, Dez Dickerson and Apollonia 6 can’t deny.

It seems a bit of a stretch that Prince as The Kid would ever consider Day, as funny and as talented as he is in his own right, serious competition (are Jungle Love and The Bird, catchy dance members notwithstanding, even remotely in the same league as Let’s Go Crazy and When Doves Cry?) or that his audience would ever decrease but cinematic convention demands such a plot.  (His unwarranted jealousy of Day getting too close to Apollonia, however, is easily convincing.  He really doesn’t have anything to worry about.)  To the film’s credit, though, when The Kid’s club gig is on the line in the final act, it leads to the deeply moving title song where for once the audience’s tears feel genuine.  God knows it got to me, too.

Apollonia is a 19-year-old beauty who flees New Orleans, successfully avoids paying for a $37.75 cab ride, rents a room at the Huntington Hotel and manages to sneak her way into First Avenue where she becomes immediately transfixed by The Kid.  (She did not deserve a Razzie for her underappreciated performance.  Her facial reactions are spot-on.)  It helps that he’s in the middle of playing perhaps the greatest Prince song of all time, Let’s Go Crazy, which is a lot longer here than on the soundtrack.

After his set, when they lay eyes on each other for the first time on the floor of the club, the lust is palpable.  But so is The Kid’s eccentric playfulness.  As Morris Day & The Time take the stage, the odd one is right behind her one minute and then gone in an instant when she turns around.  He eventually convinces the naive goddess to ride with him on the back of his motorcycle where he drives her to a lake and in a very humourous moment, tricks her into stripping down to her panties in order to jump into the freezing cold water.  She’s mad but only briefly.  You got me, you sexy motherfucker.  Her shy smile gives her away.

His home life is much more turbulent.  The Kid has a terrible role model in his black father (a genuinely scary Clarence Williams III), a former musician and songwriter, who gets into terribly violent screaming matches with his petrified white mother (a mostly muted Olga Karlatos).  (The Kid gets whacked for attempting to intervene during an early fight.)  After one such incident, she threatens to leave.  But where would she go?  The Kid’s dad, often upset about her supposed inability to keep a clean house (what’s stopping him from doing it himself?), knows it’s a bluff.

The Kid knows this shouldn’t be happening but when Apollonia announces she’s joining Morris Day’s girl group, in a rage he smacks her with an open hand.  (She had just pawned a piece of jewelry so she could buy him a guitar he likes.)  Unlike his father, he’s instantly remorseful but a damaging pattern has been established.  A later confrontation sees him almost doing it again but he somehow manages to not follow through.  Like many abusive men, The Kid’s father attempts suicide after another unwarranted attack on his wife.  This leads to a violent temper tantrum, a surprise discovery, an exposed lie, and decidedly mixed feelings.

All of this built-up tension makes the performance of Purple Rain, the epic ballad he dedicates to his father, all that more powerful as The Kid, clearly realizing he fucked up, leaves it all out on the stage, but thinking afterwards, incredibly, that it just wasn’t enough either for the audience or Apollonia herself.  The film cuts between Prince’s gutwrenching vocals (you can feel his guilt in every note) and intense close-ups of the mesmerized clubgoers, some with tears in their eyes.  (I was emotional, too.)

My favourite reactions come from the club owner Billy (the effective Billy Sparks), particularly the second one where he nods in amazement.  Even he is impressed by what he’s seeing and hearing.  Having pushed The Kid to deliver the goods, he now knows he can’t fire him.  He’s too valuable to the club.

When The Kid returns for a more upbeat and triumphant two-song encore, even Morris Day is having a good time.  (Before even taking the stage, there’s a great moment where he cruelly (but hilariously) mocks The Kid’s family situation and then when no one is around, looks very worried about what’s to come.  It’s the only time he drops his phony playboy act, his metaphorical mask temporarily removed.)

Purple Rain is far from a perfect movie.  The camera is too tight on the famous Jungle Love dance.  (The leg movements are cut off.)  Even though there are no bad Prince songs (I even liked Sex Shooter, another undeserving Razzie “winner”) few are in the class of Let’s Go Crazy, When Doves Cry or the title cut.  We could be spared the scene where Day’s assistant Jerome disposes of an angry flame on his behalf (not all of The Time’s frontman’s antics are funny, in fact, he can be quite sexist).  The Kid’s mom is purely a victim and not enough of a fully fleshed character.  And you wonder if there should’ve been a darker ending.  Abusers are too easily forgiven in this movie.

That said, there’s no denying the deftness of this enterprise, the way the highly entertaining concert performances neatly tie in to the building off-stage drama, a point Gene Siskel first made back in 1984.

Prince was a unique talent in his time, a singer, a songwriter, a producer, a versatile musician who could shred as well as Jimi Hendrix and emote as powerfully as Smokey Robinson.  He could even out-James Brown James Brown.  (His on-stage athleticism had few peers like Michael Jackson.)  But he was also complex as evidenced by his thinly veiled cinematic alter-ego.  Note one weird scene where he pretends to be a puppet to dismiss Revolution bandmate Wendy’s early demo which he eventually turns into Purple Rain and another when he tries to kiss her cheek as a belated thank you during the live performance of that song.  Her awkward reaction is unmistakable.

Distant, indifferent and sometimes flat-out jerky, like Saturday Night Fever, Purple Rain’s protagonist isn’t a hero or a villain but a complicated human being struggling to stay sane and ruthlessly ambitious in the midst of so many bad influences.  Like the dance floor where Tony Manero shined in his famous white polyester suit, the First Avenue concert stage is The Kid’s most trusted shelter from his emotional firestorms.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, April 10, 2017
7:48 p.m.

CORRECTIONS:  The club is First Avenue, not 7th as I erroneously noted a number of times.  Also, it was Wendy, not Lisa, who Prince dismisses over a demo that forms the musical basis for the title song.  The text has been corrected.  My apologies for the mistakes.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
2:04 a.m.

CORRECTION:  Apollonia didn’t find a cheap apartment, she rented a room at the Huntington Hotel.  The text has been corrected.  I regret the error.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
3:37 a.m.

Published in: on April 10, 2017 at 7:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Class Of 1984

In Class Of 1984, Perry King plays Mr. Norris, a music teacher not unlike architect Paul Kersey in Death Wish.  Both are idealistic in their non-violent principles to the point of heartbreaking blindness.  Both are men of peace unknowingly entering worlds of terror that severely test their personal philosophies.  Both are vulnerable to retribution because of the women they love.  And both reach their breaking points over the same thing.

The movie opens with Mr. Norris arriving at Abraham Lincoln High School on his first day.  Despite being the originator of Kurt Angle’s 3 I’s (“Industry, Intelligence, Integrity”), it is a troubled institution in serious decline.  The biology teacher (Roddy McDowell) carries a gun in his briefcase.  Students enter through a metal detector.  The place is littered with vulgar graffiti.  And no one seems to know what to do about Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) and his terrifying group of Nazi terrorists.  (Yes, the leader of a small group of unrepentant white supremacists is Jewish, a curious contradiction never ever addressed.)  Countless suspensions have only emboldened their criminal activities.

Stegman rules by fear and profits from depravity.  He is one of the most remorseless villains I’ve ever seen.  (Even the rapists in Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left regretted murdering those girls.)  No one scares him and no one threatens him without consequence.  He is so arrogantly brazen that even after impressing Mr. Norris with his surprisingly good piano playing (Van Patten wrote and performed his own song), like the current President of the United States, he can’t accept being rejected for exhibiting such a snotty, rude attitude.  Mr. Norris, it turns out, is no pushover.  For the first time in his life, Stegman starts feeling insecure about his status.  He may no longer be untouchable.

Class Of 1984 doesn’t shy away from brutal violence as it repeatedly demonstrates just how menacing Stegman’s crew truly is.  Very briefly we meet a rival gang of black students who make the mistake of selling drugs at Lincoln High.  This means profits are down considerably for the white supremacists who also exploit teenage sex workers.  Stegman’s terrorists beat up one of their dealers in the school washroom and then later, they whollop the entire gang with weapons in an outdoor rumble near a bridge.  As a result, we never see these black kids again.

Give this movie credit.  It gets this point right.  Right wing fascism is the most dangerous phenomenon.

As Mr. Norris prepares his students for an important concert, Stegman oversees a bathroom drug deal that goes horribly wrong.  A bad batch of angel dust leads to a dramatic suicide.  Michael J. Fox (before he had to add the J to his name) plays the smart-ass yet sympathetic trumpet player who tries to warn his doomed friend about his misguided plan.  Even though Mr. Norris confronts the gang shortly after the deal goes down, he hopes Fox will still come forward since he saw everything.  Fox knows better.  Just to make sure, Stegman and company deliver a compelling reason for him to stay quiet.

When a paranoid Stegman wrongly thinks that Fox is exposing him to a cop (Al Waxman in a fine supporting performance), a new recruit is ordered to stab him.  The gang cleverly instigate a cafeteria brawl to avoid the possibility of eyewitnesses.  But Fox eventually gives up the name from his hospital bed to his increasingly concerned teacher.

Mr. Norris’ initially peaceful resistance to Stegman’s sense of entitlement begins a war that ultimately escalates exactly the way you expect it to.  First, stage blood is squirted into his face just steps from his house.  A childish warning.  Then, his car gets blown up.  A more ominous message.  In a scene that somewhat echoes a similar moment in Dirty Harry, after mocking his infuriated teacher’s normally zen nature, Stegman purposefully bashes his own head a number of times in the bathroom and wipes his blood on his enemy’s hand hoping the incoming school security guard will connect the dots.  (Norris does get charged with assault.)  Still stubbornly thinking you can reason with a teenage fascist enabled by a delusional, passive single mom, it’s only after being directly threatened by this monster that Norris starts to finally crack.  Stegman’s beautiful red convertible gets quite a thrashing in his apartment building parking lot.  This time, Norris is the untouchable one.

Norris’ friend, the shell-shocked biology teacher, who literally drinks on the job because he can’t cope with having unresponsive students, undergoes a similar breakdown much sooner than Norris.  When Stegman’s Nazis kill all his rabbits and rats, he finally has a reason to pull out that gun in class.  Later, he attempts to run them all over outside their club hangout where Teenage Head performs.

When we find out early on that Norris has a pregnant wife (executive producer Merrie Lynn Ross), it’s only a matter of time before she’s assaulted.  (Her refusal to go to her mother’s house immediately is predictable but tragic nonetheless.)  It is easily the most disturbing scene in the film.  But without its inclusion, the final act wouldn’t work.

After being lured into a violent trap just as he’s about to begin conducting his students during that important school concert, Norris finally realizes you can’t reason with a Nazi.  You have to kill them all.

Adolf Hitler famously said that if Germans had quashed his racist movement before it ever rose to power, he wouldn’t have succeeded in orchestrating one of the worst genocides in human history.  Class Of 1984 feels the same way about its own teenage Nazis.  It fully understands the insidious nature of their violent white supremacy.  They don’t respond well to hippie talk.  Despite suspension after suspension handed down by an otherwise hapless principal who looks like Mr. Roper and a police officer who can only do so much within the law (these juvenile delinquents can’t serve life sentences despite their long rap sheets), the only real deterrent is brutal force, especially since they refuse to end their relentless bullying.

Mr. Norris is left with no alternative but to singlehandedly defend himself, his wife and his unborn child as he lays deadly, spontaneous traps of his own for these despicable heels who deserve everything they get.  It’s a testament to how well crafted this film is that I loudly cheered for him every step of the way.  He’s fully justified in his actions.

Class Of 1984 is a gruesome B-movie with some surprising intelligence and skill despite its predictable plot and lousy theme song.  (Maybe Alice Cooper should’ve written his own cut instead of singing someone else’s weak number.)  Decades after its release, its seemingly overwrought warning about the rise of school violence in America has become sadly prescient.  Imagine how even scarier Stegman and his band of bullies would’ve been if they had access to guns like the Columbine killers.

The terrific Timothy Van Patten is so obnoxiously deceptive and manipulative, so disgustingly sexist and hateful, every time you see his smug expression you want to punch him.  You eagerly look forward to seeing his inevitably turbulent fall.  Thanks to his musical talent and unspoken Jewish heritage, Stegman ends up being a much more interesting villain than you expect.  His sharp performance reminded me a bit of the blond bully who torments Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, which sadly hasn’t aged as well as this film.  His fellow gang members are all well played by mostly unknown Canadian actors who wisely present themselves as cheerful sadists with no moral lines to cross because they don’t believe in restraint.  It’s clear as the movie progresses that, without fierce resistance, it’s only a matter of time before they become savage murderers.

Perry King is well cast as their arch nemesis, a decent man whose increasingly volatile situation demands increasingly hostile responses and therefore, the erosion of his core values.  That erosion, however, is necessary to his survival even if it blackens his once peaceful soul.  Roddy McDowell is also good as the crestfallen biology teacher who feels absolutely broken by his lack of scholastic progress.  (He could’ve been given funnier lines in his earlier scenes, though, which are far less heavy.)  Although he initially advises Norris to go along to get along to avoid crossing Stegman and company, once his lab animals are massacred he becomes unhinged.

We’re told over and over again that it’s next to impossible to implicate Stegman’s gang in any number of crimes they commit because of the lack of cooperative witnesses.  But even despite that, they’re able to avoid serious prison sentences because of the numerous legal loopholes for young offenders like them.

What about DNA?  It’s never mentioned.  Then again, proper forensic testing wasn’t widely available as it is today.  But never mind.

What matters is that this is a well-crafted thriller, terrifying in its message and oh so satisfying in its resolution.  Like Quentin Tarantino’s far superior Inglourious Basterds, Class Of 1984 knows full well that the only good Nazi is a dead one.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 8, 2017
2:44 p.m.

Published in: on April 8, 2017 at 2:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Beverly Hills Cop

It’s been 25 years since I first watched Beverly Hills Cop with critical eyes.  The passage of time has not been kind to it.

Back in the summer of 1992, a rough first draft was written immediately after a Beta screening for a rightfully unpublished collection of poorly conceived reviews humbly titled The Movie Critic: Book One.  At the time, I felt the movie was average.  I praised Eddie Murphy’s performance but disliked the weak villain and the numerous cop movie cliches.  Curiously, I even panned Harold Faltermeyer’s memorable score.  I called it “unexciting” and that it didn’t “match what’s happening on the screen”.

That last observation (which honestly doesn’t sound all that sincere since the review was written fast without much forethought and left unrevised) was obviously, indisputably wrong.  The best thing about Beverly Hills Cop is, in fact, the music and not just Faltermeyer’s electronic contributions.  From Glenn Frey’s The Heat Is On during the opening titles to a reprise of Patti LaBelle’s Stir It Up during the closing ones, there isn’t a single bad music cue.  It all works.

But this isn’t a feature-length music video, as much as it seems like one at times.  No, it’s supposed to be a cop comedy.  But sadly, it’s not a very good one.  What I once felt was just so-so is now rather terrible.  It turns out the teenage me went too easy on this disappointing, unoriginal mess.

Murphy plays Axel Foley, a reckless Detroit detective who has a natural talent for pissing off authority.  After a foolish, unauthorized sting operation involving would-be cigarette smugglers goes completely haywire, he gets the first of many reprimands which grow tiresome over time.

After parking his decrepit Chevy Nova outside his apartment building that same day, he finds his old friend Mikey (James Russo) already inside eating his food.  Newly released from prison, they catch up over drinks and pool.  It must be said that their repartee feels very forced.  Like his friend, we learn that Foley was once on the other side of the law.  They used to steal cars together.  Mikey could’ve implicated his childhood friend over one such incident but never did.

Foley’s pal had a job working security for a Beverly Hills art dealer named Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), a typical foreign villain of the 80s who always looks suspicious because of his resting bitch face and European accent.  (He also has a very distracting bump on his forehead.  It looks like a zit that needs to be popped.)  Of course, the art business is a front for his real scheme, smuggling cocaine.  Mikey makes the mistake of stealing a bunch of German money from his boss which catches up to him once the old, now drunken friends arrive back at Foley’s apartment.

Confronted by a couple of Victor’s goons about the stolen Deutsche Marks, Foley’s pal gets beaten and popped.  Foley can’t do anything about it because moments before the hit, he gets knocked out from behind.  Considering how this movie ends, they should’ve shot him, too.

After another scolding from his superior (because he refuses to get checked out at the hospital and wants to investigate his friend’s homicide), Foley is granted a vacation to Beverly Hills where he hopes to get some answers without being constantly hassled.

Fat chance of that.  After his first confrontation with Victor who is not a very good liar (or much of a villain in his limited screen time), he gets thrown through a glass window (a baffling moment) and arrested by the local police.  Immediately and inevitably, he butts heads with his ill-equipped interrogators, Taggart (John Ashton) and Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) who are so straight they don’t even drink on the job.  (Also inevitable is how they will all eventually find themselves on common ground.)

After Taggart loses his temper and punches Foley in the stomach, their boss (the great Ronny Cox in a role that is very much beneath him) asks if their Detroit visitor will press charges.  In one of the few real moments of this very formulaic story, Foley admits, “Where I come from, cops don’t charge other cops.”  So true.  Just ask Black Lives Matter.

Taggart and Rosewood are ordered to tail Foley wherever he goes (Cox is concerned about his obsession with Victor), a simple task made difficult because they’re frequently and easily outsmarted.  (Even their replacements can’t do this without running into problems.)  Before we suffer through all of that unfunny nonsense (stuffing bananas in a tailpipe?), Foley reconnects with another old friend, Jenny (lovely Lisa Eilbacher), who runs a gallery owned by Victor, and informs her about the demise of their mutual childhood chum.  Stunned by the news, she ultimately helps him get into the warehouse Mikey worked at where the drugs are being hidden.  The lack of tight security there is rather alarming.  Our hero walks right in undetected.

Eventually spotted by a security guard, Foley absurdly pretends to be some kind of outraged customs inspector which allows him to get a closer look at the operation.  It seems highly unlikely he would get away with this in the real world.  Truthfully, you could say that about a lot of his scenes in this movie.  Whenever Foley assumes a different persona (fast-talking cigarette smuggler trying to implicate real ones, pissed off customs inspector surreptiously seeking evidence of drug smuggling, outraged Rolling Stone reporter trying to get a room in a fancy hotel, effeminate herpes sufferer trying to get into a private club lunch), you see right through the charade.  One wonders why none of the other characters do.

Because Beverly Hills Cop is much more interested in Eddie Murphy’s famously phony laugh (which I now find grating) and sometimes improvisational dialogue (which is often high energy but rarely humourous now), the double revenge plot is almost besides the point.  It’s clear where we’re headed (even though it takes too long to get there) and there’s no suspense about the outcome.

Victor Maitland could’ve easily been a Bond villain considering how inept he is at doing the obvious thing.  When Foley and Jenny get caught opening up a shipment crate finding those bags of cocaine hidden under some coffee grounds (a practice done to throw off sniffing guard dogs), instead of an immediate double execution, Victor has Jenny kidnapped to his gated mansion and leaves behind his punch happy goons to beat on Foley, one of whom admits to killing Mikey (guess what happens to him).  Despite taking his sweet-ass time to intervene, a hesitant Rosewood, now an ally who Foley orders to wait outside in a parked car, is still able to avert disaster in plenty of time.

That leads to the most proposterous sequence in the film, the big final shoot-out at Victor’s sprawling residence.  While Victor’s goons rain down machine gun fire without once connecting with their targets, they’re somehow easily picked off by one shot from a six-shooter or a pistol.

Beverly Hills Cop was a major turning point for Eddie Murphy.  Already a breakout star for years on Saturday Night Live, this film, his fourth, would convince him to leave the show for good and never look back.  A huge moneymaker at the time, it somehow also convinced critics it was worthy of significant praise.

It isn’t.  33 years after its initial theatrical release, beyond the music and the three times I laughed, there’s not much else to like about it.  (Yeah, it’s fun seeing a truck plow into shit but aren’t a lot of those cars owned by poor black folks who can’t afford to replace them?)  Murphy’s performance is all over the place and rarely convincing.  (Roger Ebert, a rare dissenter, correctly noted in 1984 that he isn’t an action hero.)  Ashton & Reinhold are never funny.  The villain is overly generic and remarkably vulnerable despite his wealth and social standing.  He has so much to lose upon exposure and yet his security detail is easily beatable.  It’s simply not believable that no one in Beverly Hills, not even the police force, would only see him as an outstanding citizen with nothing to hide.  He’s not exactly charming.

It’s weird that Axel Foley, a black man in a predominantly African American city, doesn’t appear to have any black friends.  Both Mikey and Jenny are white.  And it’s also odd that he doesn’t encounter any racism in the film.  (Most of the strange looks he gets from the Beverly Hills rich is for his broken down car making them more classist than anything else.)  In the scene set in that fancy Beverly Hills hotel (where a room for one costs you over 200 dollars a night), he’s refused not because of his dark pigmentation but because he hasn’t made a reservation.  It’s only because he causes an embarrassing scene that they manage to somehow find him something.

Ebert was right.  That scene in itself isn’t funny for a whole lot of reasons.  And yet overall, he gave this movie two and a half stars out of four.  If you ask me, he gave it one star too many.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 2, 2017
4:31 p.m.

Published in: on April 2, 2017 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Entity

The Entity asks us to believe that a single mom of three is not safe in her own home because an invisible rapist keeps assaulting her.  Supposedly based on a real-life story (that has never ever been independently verified), the woman is played by the beautiful and otherwise sympathetic Barbara Hershey.

A widow from a previous marriage when she was just a teen (which bore her a son), she has two daughters in a common-law situation that sees her spending most of the movie without a partner because Alex Rocco is always off on business trips.  (He pops in briefly in less than a handful of scenes.)

While brushing her hair and putting night cream on her leg one night, she is suddenly slapped, thrown on her bed and smothered by a blanket while being raped.  Just as quickly as it happens, her assailant bolts.  And her life is never the same.  On four more occasions, she will experience similar traumas:  while asleep, while on her couch, while in her bathroom and while completely disrobed on her bed.

Each time, I was repulsed (because Hershey’s acting is very good and rape scenes aren’t pleasant to sit through, let alone experience) but highly skeptical.  Why would a poltergeist target her, and her alone, for such violations?

The entity, as it comes to be known, doesn’t just rape, you see, it also causes destruction.  It shakes mirrors, yanks out dresser drawers, dislodges shelves, opens windows and slams doors.  And it doesn’t restrict its torture to Hershey’s family home.  While driving one day, it suddenly takes over the pedals, almost causing her to crash.  When she makes her second trip to her friend’s house (while they’re just about to leave for a wedding reception), the invisible beast causes havoc in the living room in a matter of seconds.

Hershey’s friend convinces her to see a psychiatrist and that’s when the much missed Ron Silver enters the picture.  He becomes her chief caregiver and right off the bat, his Freudian senses detect bullshit.  Unfortunately, the movie takes Hershey’s side, swallowing the preposterous idea that everything we see actually happened in real life.  (The film is based on a novel that had already taken liberties with the original story.)

He thinks everything she’s experiencing is the result of a delusional manifestation brought out by long repressed childhood sexual trauma.  We learn her father, a minister, did not respect her boundaries.  She ended up running away to New York when she was 16 when she got pregnant by her eventual husband who later died in a motorcycle crash.  Her son was born after he died.

While in a bookstore with her friend, Hershey overhears a couple of men talking about a case that sounds similar to hers.  She befriends them and convinces the two scientists to investigate her house.  While passing by a mirror in her living room, it shakes.  For the rest of the movie, they use their early 80s electronic equipment to try to figure out what the hell is going on.  At one point, the entity sends out bits of harmless green light towards them.  Is that supposed to be threatening?

All the while, Silver is not convinced she’s in any real danger.  He thinks it’s all in her head.  That was probably the situation in real life since the real woman at the heart of this story was an abusive alcoholic who lived in a shack with her four kids (Hershey has three in the film) that had been declared condemned.  Twice.  By comparison, occasional wine drinker Hershey and her family live in a typical California middle class residence.  There’s very little dysfunction and Hershey does not exhibit any mental illness whatsoever.

Silver’s Freudian tendencies get the better of him when he suggests that maybe Hershey has hidden sexual feelings for her teenage son (who has undisclosed disciplinary problems at school and looks after his sisters while she takes typing lessons at night school).  He’s clearly reaching, a sign of stubbornness.  (He’s not too happy about the scientists who’ve taken over her case.)  No wonder this discredited school of thought has long since been discarded by contemporary academics.

He’s probably right, though, that Hershey has never fully healed from her father’s violations but the movie makes no connection between that and the poltergeist assaults.  In fact, by the end of the film, we still don’t know why this is happening.  After a disastrous lab experiment (conducted in a gym) that results in a couple of unintentional laughs, the entity suddenly figures out how to talk.  I wish it stayed mute.

Despite not being a good film, The Entity is really better than it should be thanks to two strong performances from Hershey and Silver.  Their conversations have a nice, natural rhythm that adds undeserved authenticity to a story otherwise wreaking of nonsense.  (I also liked the opening title music which also plays during the end credits.)  The assault sequences are technically convincing when it’s just Hershey and the invisible demon (except for the last one which suffers from obvious special effects) but when family members try to rescue her, the little suspension of disbelief generated from these moments immediately dissipates.  You know none of this happened in real life.  It’s just not possible.

Because this is nothing more than unresolved paranormal propaganda, unlike Martin Scorsese (who named this one of his 11 favourite horror films of all time in The Daily Beast), I didn’t feel all that terrified.  More than anything, I was confused by why I should take any of this seriously.  Put simply, maybe The Entity would’ve worked a lot better if it was as skeptical as Silver.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 24, 2017
3:39 a.m.

Published in: on February 24, 2017 at 3:39 am  Leave a Comment  

The Exorcist III

A young boy has been brutally murdered at the start of The Exorcist III.  Hardened police lieutenant George C. Scott (in a typically gruff performance) knew the 12-year-old victim as a member of the Police Boys Club.  They were friendly.  At first, the killing appears to be the work of a disturbed racist possibly obsessed with religion.  But as the film progresses, it’s clear that racism isn’t really a factor at all.

A stark improvement over the muddled, sometimes silly Exorcist II: The Heretic, which is wrongly considered one of the worst films of all time (it’s bad, but not that bad), how unfortunate that despite being better it’s still not good enough to recommend.

Scott has never really gotten over the death of Father Karras (Jason Miller), the young exorcist who sacrificed his life at the end of the overrated original.  Every year on the anniversary of his fatal tumble down the stairs, Scott goes to the movies with another priest, an old friend named Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) to see It’s A Wonderful Life.  Both do it to cheer each other up.

Their conversations are overly jokey (when they’re not spiritually philosophical) which would’ve been fun if they produced a lot of laughs.  One example: Scott grumbles about his visiting mother-in-law’s eccentric method of cooking carp.  She buys it alive and has it swimming in his bathtub for three days before frying it.  He hasn’t bathed at all during that time.  Who gives a shit?

In the meantime, there are more unexplained murders: a priest in a confessional and, after being hospitalized for what he says are routine tests, Dyer, himself.  The killer has drained the entire blood supply from Dyer’s dead body into over a dozen small plastic jars.  Early forensic reports reveal that one person wasn’t responsible for all the killings which deeply puzzles and troubles Scott and his loyal team of investigators.

That leads him to the mysterious Patient X.  Locked up in chained cuffs in a secure wing of the hospital while connected to a device that monitors his brain activity, he was brought in 15 years ago after being found wandering around with no ID.  He has been catatonic during his entire stay.  When Scott gets a good look at his face (after hearing his name called out), he is startled.  Patient X looks uncannily like Father Karras. How can this be?  And how did no one else notice this before?

But then, while inside his dimly lit cell, X often transforms into Brad Dourif, who looks uncannily like The Gemini Killer, a depraved serial murderer executed by the state 15 years ago.  Dourif claims that he was given a second chance at life thanks to his unnamed “master” who somehow slipped him into Karras’ body without detection.  It has taken him years to become the new host.  He proudly takes responsibility for all the murders through long, admittedly entertaining diatribes. (Dourif doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his anti-hero charisma and conviction.)  Scott loses his cool at one point and breaks his nose.  Yep, this act goes unpunished.  He’s a cop, after all.

Eventually, we learn how The Gemini Killer, through Father Karras’ body, is able to continue his signature killings (decapitations, chopped off middle fingers, zodiac symbols carved into palms) without escaping his cell.  When you think about it, it’s rather clever.  Too bad it’s doesn’t produce a lot of decent, original, visual scares.  The walking on the ceiling routine we’ve seen before.

I’ll say this for The Exorcist III.  It is considerably restrained.  The most disturbing moments are often described, not shown.  That makes it more effective when it operates as a supernatural police procedural rather than the uneven horror film it ultimately turns out to be.  Its fatal flaw is that it refuses to divorce itself from conventionality.  Stripped down to the bone, it’s basically a so-so slasher movie with a twist.

The Gemini Killer threatens to escalate if Scott, a lifelong skeptic, continues to refuse to publicize his return to crime.  (Like Donald Trump, he craves press notoriety.)  At one point, even Scott’s teenage daughter is at risk.

This all leads to a rather disappointing finale that is heavy on the special effects and light on profound terror.  If that’s all it takes to win the day, then why didn’t it happen sooner?

By contrast, the original Exorcist is without a doubt incredibly frightening.  After seeing it in the theatre more than 40 years ago, my Dad, who is literally afraid of nothing, had to sleep with the lights on for an entire week.  It was only after going back to see it again that he eventually turned them off for good.

But when it isn’t scary, it isn’t interesting.  Regan, the possessed girl, is just another young damsel in distress with no real memorable character traits of her own.  (Only the devil makes her compelling.)  I don’t care about her mother’s acting career or divorce, nor Father Karras’ guilt about his mother’s death.  The only story that holds my interest is the ongoing battle between Max Von Sydow, the older exorcist, and Pazuzu, the demonic spirit that uses Regan’s physicality as a weapon.  When The Exorcist focuses on that part of the story, it’s terrifyingly brilliant.  When it doesn’t, the movie loses its edge, creating an infuriatingly uneven experience.

The Exorcist III is less frustrating to watch because it doesn’t aim for greatness.  (This is my second time seeing it having previously caught it at the theatre back in 1990.)  Its agenda is to make you forget all about Exorcist II and its baffling scenes of blinking lights, cascading sonic tones, James Earl Jones in a locust costume and Richard Burton’s blank stare.  On that level alone, it surely succeeds, which is a low standard to achieve.  Certainly, it’s less confused about its motives than the John Boorman fiasco.  Plus, it’s more intelligent despite going down familiar terrain.  It also contains this sharp zinger: “Jesus loves you.  Everybody else thinks you’re an asshole.”  And a welcome reference to Spaceballs.

But like the earlier sequel, it faces the impossible task of justifying its own existence, a common problem for horror franchises that refuse to die.  Based on writer/director William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion (incidentally, he died earlier this year), which dropped years after The Heretic, how could it possibly compare to the madness of William Friedkin’s disappointingly flawed original?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 24, 2017
3:25 a.m.

Published in: on February 24, 2017 at 3:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Step Up Revolution

What happens when you expand upon an idea from Step Up 2: The Streets and combine it with a recycled love story from its predecessor?  You get Step Up Revolution, the dullest movie in the franchise thus far.

In Step Up 2, there’s a scene where a group of street dancers film themselves breaking out into an elaborate routine inside a subway train freaking out the unsuspecting passengers and alerting the local cops.  After fleeing without being arrested, they post the video online to get themselves a little buzz.

In Step Up Revolution, smug Sean (Ryan Guzman), a working class orphan like Channing Tatum in the first Step Up, leads another group of street dancers nicknamed The Mob (because they’re a flash mob, get it?) who orchestrate multiple public displays of dance, capture them on video and then upload them to the Internet.  Why?  To win a contest.

You see, if all their public dance videos can collectively generate 10 million hits, they win $100,000.  (We have no idea what they plan to do with the money.  Not that it really matters anyway.)  Curiously, they appear to be the only crew in the contest.  We never see any videos of their competition.

The best routine happens at the start of the film as the dancers file out of their parked cars and start dancing on the roofs.  But then things get a little over the top as low rider cars start acting like trained elephants at the circus, rising until they’re only on their back wheels.  As all of this is happening, a mostly mute graffiti artist (who you know will say something by the end of this movie), quickly puts together a multi-layered art display consisting of spray paint on several standing glass sheets.  It’s something of a calling card for everyone in Miami to see.  It’s not that great, really.

Somehow, this becomes the top story on the local news (which must mean this is a pretty boring place to live if this is the lead).  Reviews are mostly negative.  Two out of the three citizens interviewed for this report are more annoyed than impressed, which is how I ultimately felt about Step Up Revolution.

The Mob moves on to less memorable, mostly indulgent routines in an art museum (where they blend in with the paintings and sculptures) and a restaurant (where they wear masquerade masks).  Somehow, they’re always able to avoid being arrested for trespassing and being public nuisances.  Their stunts aren’t exactly tight, y’all.

After the parked car sequence, Sean meets rich girl Emily (a very stiff Kathryn McCormick who is no Jenna Dewan) at a daytime beach party and the quality of the movie dips considerably. They have zilcho chemistry.  She can’t get a drink at the bar (or recite a line with conviction) but can become a finalist in another contest to get accepted into a ritzy ballet studio.  (Dewan had a similar ambition.)  She’s one of five nominated students vying for a residency.  All she has to do is win over an impossible-to-please Mia Michaels, a judge from So You Think You Can Dance, the reality TV show that only seems to exist in order to cast these Step Up movies.

Sean works for her divorced father (Peter Gallagher), a cold-hearted real estate developer who makes the mistake of wanting to tear down Ricky’s, a favourite hangout of The Mob where they celebrate their successes (Sean never has to pay for drinks, for some reason), and other commercial & residential properties in that neighbourhood in favour of a gaudy tourist attraction.  (Sean is a waiter in Gallagher’s hotel restaurant.)

Traditional Emily is repeatedly told at the ritzy ballet studio that her technique is good but she lacks originality.  (How did she become a finalist, then?)  So Sean tries expanding her repertoire but he doesn’t really teach her anything new, to be frank.  He just holds her and lifts her and dips her.  She wants to join The Mob but Sean is worried she won’t be accepted because of the neighbourhood issue with her father.  Plus, Sean’s best friend, Eddy (Misha Gabriel) is immediately suspicious of her.  (Gallagher fired him from the hotel restaurant for being late to an employee meeting.  How villainous.)  So, predictably, they keep it a secret as Eddy rather quickly gives in.  They will both regret this decision.

Meanwhile, Gallagher is close to getting City Council approval for construction of his new tourist attraction which inspires The Mob to lead protest dances to save Ricky’s and all the other properties in their neighbourhood, much to the appreciation of the lazy residents there.  (How come these people don’t conduct their own traditional protests with signs and chants?  Like street dancing would be more effective?)  They stage a flash mob in the lobby of Gallagher’s office building (to a strange Radiohead remix) after pulling the fire alarm.  Then, without the approval of Sean, Eddy organizes a slightly more effective stunt during a gala for the project where The Mob neatly sabotages a video presentation (which unfortunately reminds us that Kathryn McCormick can’t act).  This is the only time they get caught and promptly arrested.

Freed from custody the next day (the movie is so disinterested in this part of the story there’s no follow through or resolution, it’s simply dropped altogether), Sean and Eddy come to blows and split up.  Before the foolhardy stunt at the gala (which disqualifies them from the online contest after being only a few hundred thousand hits away from victory), Eddy and The Mob discover the truth about Emily.  Afterwards, Sean fails to convince her he had no genuine role in the public debacle.  (A deleted scene on the DVD reveals he was against the idea from the start.)

With the situation looking bleak, can the neighbourhood still be saved?  Will Eddy and Sean make peace and reform The Mob?  Will Sean and Emily rekindle their boring romance?

Only a naïve child will be kept in suspense.  Step Up Revolution ends with one final dance protest that enlists the services of a number of cast members from previous Step Up movies including that guy that does a killer robot and Moose with his irritating exploding fist bump gimmick.  (We still don’t know the origin of his nickname.  I’m guessing it’s because he looks like one.)  It goes on forever although I did enjoy the breakdancing segment.

Call me crazy but I’m not sure the power of dance is so undeniable it could instantly melt the heart of a ruthless industrialist or that someone connected to a powerful ad firm would suddenly make an offer to a desperate dance crew once they finally stop protest dancing but the filmmakers are determined to have their obligatory, happy ending even if it completely lacks credibility.  If the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors started flash mobs, would that change Donald Trump’s mind about the project of which he has a personal, invested interest?  Wigga, please.

The Step Up movies have had a longstanding marriage with formula storytelling but you could always count on superb, sometimes innovative dance sequences to get you through the dull bits even if they weren’t nearly enough to overcome all this chronic predictability.  Up to this point, the movies have been slightly less than average.  Step Up Revolution, the fourth installment, is the first entry where you can’t even count on the dancing to alleviate your mental fatigue.  After the opening car dance sequence, the movie begins to drag considerably and despite a welcome moment here and there, you remain deeply disinterested in what you see overall.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, February 9, 2017
8:13 p.m.

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Step Up

Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan have such an obvious chemistry the moment they lock eyes for the first time in Step Up, it’s no wonder they ended up marrying in real life.  But because they’re trapped in a formula dance picture, the movie forces them to deny their feelings for a full hour.  And then it forces them to temporarily split up again just to make the final act more dramatic.

But that’s the problem.  Step Up isn’t dramatic nor romantic.  It’s routine business with otherwise entertaining dance sequences thrown in to fill out the overlong running time.

Tatum plays an adopted, street-dancin’ wigger with Black friends who steal cars for quick cash.  Dewan is a single-parented, classically trained ballerina in a bit of a crisis.  Her dance partner breaks his ankle and she needs someone to rehearse with before a big showcase that is crucial for her professional future.  Her partner is expected to recover in time for the performance.

Thanks to Tatum taking the fall for his friends after they all vandalize Dewan’s arts school upon leaving a house party (where Tatum gets into a fight with a jealous boyfriend over his Vanilla Ice-like dance moves with his girlfriend), his punishment is to perform 200 hours of community service there.  How convenient.

In the beginning, all he does is clean.  But after seeing Dewan, he wants to fill in for her injured partner.  (It sure beats vacuuming.)  She only agrees after some of her fellow students bomb their auditions with her.  (Really?  You guys can’t lift this tiny human being without falling?  Please.)

Inevitably, because they come from completely different worlds, it’s an awkward start.  She’s old school, he’s street.  She’s disciplined, he’s lackadaisical.  Tatum unsurprisingly quits right away before being shamed into coming back. (He has a reputation for giving up too easily.)  But eventually, over time, he commits, albeit up to a point (he tends to show up when he wants to, if he wants to, and not always promptly) and ultimately convinces her to do more of a hybrid routine for her showcase, something less stiff and traditional and with a group of dancers, one that the school’s director (the well-dressed Rachel Griffiths) openly considers risky.

Which, of course, is a good sign all will go well in the end.  But, of course, there are contrived complications leading up to that inevitable moment.  Dewan is dating a douchey pop singer, a fellow student, who uses their mutual DJ friend to get a record deal without bringing him on board.  The DJ friend, who is always suggesting music for her showcase routine, likes Dewan’s girlfriend but she too is dating a douchey pop singer albeit one a little older than her.

Both relationships are doomed to fail.  Dewan dumps the douchey pop singer for mistreating her DJ pal.  And her girlfriend spots her older boyfriend, the other douchey pop singer, making out with somebody backstage after they perform with the DJ friend at a club together.

When Dewan’s partner for the showcase performance recovers as expected, Tatum, knowing full well this arrangement was only temporary, takes the split personally.  He quietly mopes and refuses to take her calls.  Then, unsurprisingly, Dewan’s original partner gets hurt again, leaving her in the exact same position she was in at the start of the film.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen next.

Step Up became something of a surprise success in 2006 as it would go on to spawn four sequels and put Tatum on the path to stardom.  How disappointing that the film itself is not surprising.  Consider the following:

Dewan’s mom is not supportive of her daughter’s dream, that is until we get close to the end when she suddenly remembers how important dancing is to her, a very familiar and not-so-sincere change of heart we’ve seen so many times before.  (Her dead father, a shipping executive who succumbed to cancer, was always on Dewan’s side.)  Her loud shout of “Bravo!” in the final act is a bit much and is classic overcompensation.

One of Tatum’s friends feels rejected when his wigger pal keeps bailing on pick-up games with him and his younger brother only to be sitting in the audience cheering him on during the showcase performance.  (Before then, he has a problem with rich white folks taking away his homey.)  Speaking of Skinny, the aforementioned younger brother, the second he steals a car from a notorious character in their neighbourhood, you pretty much know his fate is sealed.  By the way, that whole subplot feels completely unnecessary in a PG-film about aspiring teen dancers (it’s also not very well executed, if you’ll forgive the pun) but it’s one reason Tatum eventually makes peace with his hurt friend, yet another predictable moment.

And then, there’s Tatum’s hope to switch in his final year from his current public high school to this arts school that has changed his life.  But will he convince the always skeptical Griffiths he’s worth admitting?  Can the poor kid with nothing be accepted with all the rich kids who have everything?  It all depends on what his heart tells him to do in the final act.  Only those who have never seen a movie before will be shocked by his decision.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
9:07 p.m.

Published in: on February 7, 2017 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment