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.

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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  

Miami Blues

There’s something seriously wrong with Alec Baldwin.

But let’s talk about his character in Miami Blues.

When the movie begins, he’s on a flight from California to Florida.  Fresh out of the clink, he’s already beaten a man to death and stolen his identity.  Upon arriving at the airport, it takes two tries before he successfully steals someone’s suitcase.  For some reason, he settles on one belonging to a sleeping mother.

On the way down the escalator, he grows so instantly annoyed with the high pressure sales tactics of a Hari Krishna, who wants him to embrace The Knowledge Of God in literary form, he breaks his finger.  The shock kills him.  Is that even possible?

Once safely ensconsed in his hotel room, a bellboy he just met sends him up a self-conscious sex worker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who immediately lies about her name and her age.  She’s 23, not 19.  And her name isn’t Pepper, it’s Susan.

The psychologically abusive Baldwin, who insists on being called Junior, sizes up the situation and takes manipulative control.  He senses serious vulnerability in the young university student.  (He later dismisses her modest dream of starting a burger franchise as stupid.)  Finding a use for that woman’s suitcase he just stole (he falsely claims it belongs to his non-existent ex-wife), he insists Susan put on a red dress.  Then, he lowers the boom.  It’ll cost her 50 bucks to own it.  She suggests that’s the equivalent of a blowjob.  She ends up keeping it for free.  After planting one on her lips, Susan remarks, “Nobody kisses us.” It’s hard to tell if she’s talking about sex workers or women with very low standards.

At any event, Junior hitches his rickety wagon to the gullible Susan who thinks he’s left his wife (he was never married) and a life of thievery behind for an investment career.  Far from it.

Every chance he gets, the impulsive psycho seizes an opportunity to enrich himself illegitimately.  His preferred schtick is to rob people in the middle of robbing other people whether it’s a tag team of pickpockets at the local mall or gunmen hoping for a quick score from the till or a defenseless mark.  That is when he’s not robbing their potential victims himself.  As the money and valuable objects keep poring in, he continues to see Susan purely for sex, free meals and shelter.  He certainly isn’t in love with her.

There’s an odd scene where they meet for lunch at an outdoor café.  First, they exchange tacky gifts.  He gets a novelty T-shirt.  She gets a mug with her name on it.  While a synchronized swim team performs a “water ballet” in the background, Susan prattles on and on about her boring life to a clearly irritated Junior who tolerates her blatherings because he needs her more than she needs him.  When she suggests he eat a particular salad she likes, he takes one bite, declares it disgusting and they’re out of there.

Meanwhile, eccentric cop Fred Ward (who has a peculiar habit of pulling out his false teeth before he drinks) is investigating the Hari Krishna’s death and eventually acquires Susan’s address.  He pops in unannounced and invites himself over for dinner.  During the meal, he makes Junior very uncomfortable by asking very pointed questions and making astute observations.  Junior has an unusually firm grip, he notices out loud.  He protects his meal like a prisoner would.  Even though Ward doesn’t know his whole history yet, he’s already onto him.  Minus the unfunny denture gimmick, it’s the film’s smartest performance.  (Nora Dunn, who plays a fellow cop, is also good in her small role as she does the off-camera grunt work to save Ward some investigative time.)

While he makes small talk with Susan (they bond over her delicious pork chops), there’s a creepy moment where Junior lingers in the background teasing the idea of shooting his new enemy with a big silver gun he has already secretly stolen from her oblivious next door neighbour.  (That’s where Junior found the pork chops, as well.)  When Ward makes the mistake of telling him that he’s staying at a hotel run by a deaf guy, Junior pays him a surprise visit and lays the hurt on him so bad he’s hospitalized for a while.  Adding to the humiliation, not only does he steal his badge and gun but also his false teeth.  Curiously, he doesn’t steal his money.

When Junior starts parading around town as a renegade cop busting up an illegal betting ring, handcuffing drug dealers and stopping robberies in progress (not to mention taking bribes from Susan’s bellboy pimp), the joke is he’s better at the job than Ward himself.  One of his arrests unwittingly solves a murder case that stymied the real homicide detective for 15 months.

Junior’s forced relationship with Susan moves so quickly their brief & phony engagement turns into a really phony marriage of convenience.  After talking her into cashing in her ten thousand dollar CD, he rents a furnished home with “almost antiques” in Coral Gables.  Susan, already appreciative for being “rescued” from the sex trade, enthusiastically plays the role of little miss housewife, even though Junior talks her out of having kids and denies her an “I love you” return.  He also needlessly continues to put himself in dangerous situations because he’s addicted to being someone more powerful than himself.

When I first watched Miami Blues on videotape sometime in 1990, I didn’t care for it.  The characters were too wacky, the plot not terribly amusing.  27 years later, after rescreening it on Blu-ray I haven’t changed my opinion.  It’s still a depressing mess.  As Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his own pan of the film, it wants to be an “off-centre comedy” but rarely succeeds.  (I laughed twice this time.)  He found Susan and Junior too stupid to be credible.

For me, Alec Baldwin just isn’t terrifying enough as the heel here.  When he assaults people, it should be more intense, more uncomfortable.  Instead, it’s just standard action stuff.  His outrageous attempts at being a cop are limited to trigger-happy gunplay and regurgitating his interactions with real ones like Ward.  What they’ve said to him over the years he says back to the people he encounters.  Junior is so reckless and out of control, his fate is inevitable and therefore, not shocking.  The famous song that plays over the opening titles serves as a warning of sorts that goes predictably unheeded.

1990 was a breakthrough year for Jennifer Jason Leigh who also starred in Last Exit To Brooklyn where she plays a more tragic sex worker.  She’s easily convincing as Susan but I didn’t really care about her sometimes annoying, not terribly interesting character.  She’s too much of an all-believing doormat and for far too long.  She’s not given anything funny to say, either.

There’s a scene where Ward purposely bumps into her at the grocery store.  By this point, he knows Junior’s full history and shares key revelations with her.  When she describes how best to make a vinegar pie (remember their bond over food), notice how emotional she gets as all of this new information about her homicidal husband starts sinking in.  In a stronger movie, it would be a powerful moment.  But as it stands in this mediocre one, because we never bought this relationship in the first place, you wonder why she’s stuck it out this long.  Is she really this desperate?

Susan deliberately puts way too much vinegar in her concoction as a test of her man’s honesty.  After supper, she offers him a slice for dessert.  It’s abundantly clear from the moment he takes his first bite, he hates it.  But he lies and repeatedly says it’s great as he continues eating.  Susan breaks down.

But that doesn’t stop her from being Junior’s getaway driver in the film’s most memorable scene.  After stealing her next door neighbour’s not-so-rare coin collection without her knowledge (at the same time he nabbed the pork chops and big silver gun), he takes it to a cynical dealer and ends up in a gunfight.  Then, the owner slices off three of his digits.  Incredibly, he still manages to steal some cash from the register and pilfer a ring for his lady.  When he returns to the car, he gets a rude awakening.  Although she later lamely rationalizes her devotion to him (raise your standards, honey), Susan finally realizes that her husband’s word, like this movie, has always been shit.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 27, 2017
8:00 p.m.

Published in: on August 27, 2017 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cathy’s Curse (1977 & 1980)

One night in December 1947, a man with a cartoonish moustache drives home in a panic to find his weeping daughter all alone.  His wife has kidnapped his son for reasons that are never explained.  As you can imagine, neither of them are terribly happy about it.

The man and his daughter soon drive off in his beautiful red car hoping to track them down.  But then a bunny randomly shows up on the road, he repeatedly swerves to avoid it and they crash.  This gorgeously painted vehicle erupts into flames, the young girl fails to revive him while simultaneously calling out in vain for help and yet still manages to get out without us ever seeing her escape.

Three decades later, the missing brother, now a grown man who looks like the lead singer of Wang Chung and sounds like a less sophisticated Frasier Crane, mysteriously re-appears with his mentally disturbed wife who has haunting eyes and a touchy feely young daughter of their own.  They’ve returned to live in his family’s old abandoned home.  Everything is still here including his “first love”, a naked white figurine that he hilariously damages.  He shouldn’t have bothered repairing it.

But when his cute blond daughter makes the fateful mistake of exploring the attic (in order to get out of helping her mother with the dusting), their charmed lives change for the worse.

That’s the set-up for the humourously inept Cathy’s Curse, a decidedly unscary horror film first released in Canada in 1977 (both in English and French) and then in a drastically cut version in the US three years later.  Both English versions are included in a new 40th Anniversary Blu-ray.

Cathy, the blond kid, takes one look at a freaky picture of Laura, the young girl who disappears after the opening scene, and is suddenly possessed by her vengeful spirit.  Still pissed at her mom for kidnapping her brother, through Cathy, she starts acting out.  A now controlled Cathy turns colder towards her own mother, Vivian, who has a short fuse, especially when you repeat nursery rhymes too much or don’t say anything at all, and has never fully recovered from her unexplained mental breakdown.  As time goes on, Vivian becomes that one character that knows something is seriously wrong with her daughter but her dopey, overworked yet never fatigued husband George dismisses her well-founded suspicions as imagined nonsense.  At no time do they ever go up to the attic themselves.

Helping out around the house are Mary, the surprisingly tolerant maid, and Paul, the drunken, dishevelled, British gardener with a big hole in the elbow of his cardigan sweater.  He looks like a cross between an elderly Hulk Hogan and a short-haired Mick Fleetwood.  Even though the accent is different, you wonder if he was the inspiration for Groundskeeper Willie.

After being hypnotized and possessed by Laura’s spirit, Cathy brings down an old doll that has its eyes sewn shut.  She develops an unhealthy attachment to the thing and freaks out if you try to take it from her.  In one of many bad judgment calls made by the filmmakers, the doll has an unintentionally hilarious demon voice and at times can move on its own.  In one scene where it goes flying across the room, you can clearly see strings attached.

As you’ve probably already deduced, much of the movie’s plot makes little sense.  For starters, in the Canadian version, during the flaming car sequence, we clearly see an open door leading us to believe Laura is still alive.  But in the U.S. version, that shot is cut, so now we believe she’s dead.  (You only see the open door very quickly in a couple of flashbacks which causes further confusion.)  Regardless, how in the hell does her spirit live on in that framed photo with the glowing green eyes, one of the few effective special effects in this mess?  (For what’s it worth, I also enjoyed the red bath water gag.)

Also weird is the scene where some neighbourhood kids are caught spying on the family but are nonetheless immediately invited to play with Cathy, the new girl in town.  (The invitation scene is absent from the US cut.)  While Vivian, the mom, entertains Mrs. Burton, the mother of that nosy threesome, and her friend, Agatha, a nerdy medium obsessed with all things old, Cathy loosely re-enacts the film’s opening scene with her new playmates but from Laura’s rather sexist perspective.  (She’s never forgotten George’s kidnapping.)

At the same time, Agatha looks at a photo of Laura’s dead father and starts acting out all the voice parts from the same moment which is supremely silly.  It all ends with a sweaty Agatha screaming and Mrs. Burton’s daughter getting poked in the eye with a foreign object.  Suddenly having the urge to leave, there’s another unintentional laugh when a shocked Mrs. Burton still manages to be thankful for Vivian’s delicious coffee.  Yeah, it wasn’t cool that your daughter tried to blind my daughter but it would be rude not to acknowledge your tasty beverage!

When the medium decides to pay an unexpected second visit to the house after Vivian invites her to drop by at any time, she instead encounters an inebriated Paul and a very bitchy Cathy.  (Vivian gets institutionalized a number of times during this ordeal.)  After scaring her away with a whole lot of misogyny (shouldn’t she have anticipated this hostility?), Cathy makes sure the gardener continues to get plastered into a vulnerable, frozen state (minus the occasional blinking and shaking) as she somehow manufactures the presence of a couple of little snakes, some rats and a tarantula to torment him.  It’s another baffling scene because there’s no pay-off.  The creepy crawlies don’t bite.

A similar moment occurs when Cathy climbs up the stairs with a tray full of food for her bed-ridden mother.  As she stands by the open-doored attic, a light goes on, she returns to her hypnotic state (another unplanned humourous moment) and suddenly that glass of milk turns red, that apple becomes rotten and one of those sandwiches is infested with slimy bugs.  (A cool, old-school effect, actually.)  But when she shows up in Vivian’s bedroom, the drink and food are back to normal again and are never consumed.

Laura’s hold on Cathy becomes so strong, when she’s not showing up as a reflection or turning her into a pint-sized Rich Little, she can actually make her disappear and reappear at will.  But, late in the film, she decides it’s enough already and tries to make her drown herself.  To say there is a constant lack of logic would be redundant.

By the time we reach the end, after a number of innocent people and a dog are murdered (poor Sneaker), it turns out there’s an easy solution to all this mostly scareless hokum.  But because everyone is either incredibly stupid or under the spell of Laura, we have to wait nearly 90 minutes (or 80 minutes in the case of the American cut) for it to finally happen.

Cathy’s Curse is a strange little film in so many unflattering ways.  The shorter US version does not make it any less so.  By the way, most of the cuts happen in the first half and are quite noticeable at times.  (Some of the editing is pretty obvious and shoddy which is also true of the uncut original for that matter.)  Boring conversations are severely cut down (the disappeared portions are mostly unimportant) while whole scenes are dropped entirely.  (The opening title sequence, which is mixed in with the car wreck, is missing a number of credits from the Canadian version.)

The moment where George accidentally snaps off the arm of his beloved figurine is totally absent in the shorter edit as is the scene when he glues it back together.  Curiously, however, Cathy’s Scanner-like destruction of it remains.  Keeping that in the US version without the earlier context is odd.  Then again, the idea of her destroying one of her father’s most treasured keepsakes, while otherwise maintaining a close, somewhat watered down Freudian relationship with him, makes no sense, either.

Also, in case you don’t understand what the hell is going on in the first two scenes of the movie, a couple of “helpful” graphics are added to the US edit so you don’t have to hurt your brain.  Other than the dates mentioned, however, they are completely unnecessary.  (All of the need-to-know information is covered in the dialogue.)  As idiotic as this film is, at least we understand the basic familial connections between the main characters.

What isn’t understood at all is this inane plot which asks us to accept some inconsistent, far-fetched supernatural craziness that operates so far from the realm of reasonableness you will often sit there scratching your head wondering how many drugs were consumed in the making of this travesty.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 27, 2017
5:05 p.m.

Published in: on August 27, 2017 at 5:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Interstellar

At the heart of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a dilemma, one that is not so easily resolved.  Earth is on the verge of a mass famine.  Corn is the only remaining crop that can be successfully cultivated by farmers, a profession in dire need of new recruits.  Everything else has died out.  Soon, conditions will be unsuitable for anything else to be planted.

Dust is everywhere, an ominous sign.  Dust storms are common.  You have to flip over bowls, cups and glasses when not in use so it doesn’t accumulate on the inside.  Once it gets in your lungs, the coughing starts.  And it never stops.  People are getting desperate.  But no one has any concrete solutions, not even NASA.

Matthew McConaughey plays one of those farmers but he hates the job.  A widow with a teenage son who will be forced to take over the family farm some day and a curious daughter who loves science as much as he does, he remains haunted by a mistake.  Despite that, he would much rather be flying.

Then his daughter tells him about her “ghost”.  In her bedroom, some mysterious thing has been shoving books off the shelves and leaving coded messages in the dust.  She translates one but it seemingly makes no sense.  Another message unknowingly leads them on a ride to a secret NASA facility.

It is here where we learn about a secret plan (well, two, to be exact), a scientific hail mary that relies on a lot of good fortune and more faith than absolute certainty.  Unbeknownst to the general public, professor Michael Caine and his team of NASA scientists have been trying to find a replacement Earth at great expense.  They’ve sent 12 astronauts on doomed solitary suicide missions to remote worlds hoping for a miracle.  They’re down to three options, none of which are sure things.

And that leads to McConaughey’s aching dilemma.  Do I go on this risky mission with a team of astronauts knowing I will sacrifice decades for no guarantee of success or do I stay, build lasting memories with my family and go down with the sinking ship?

That’s an intriguingly heartbreaking premise, and because we like McConaughey and his family (especially father-in-law John Lithgow who provides much-needed levity when warranted), we understand why he’s reluctant to leave at first.  We don’t envy his situation.

There’s a good scene where he tells his daughter the bad news.  She doesn’t understand.  She’s angry.  He tries to reassure her:  I’ll be back.  I love you forever.  She doesn’t believe him.  She’s still mad.  It’s a scene he will revisit in a most surprising way despite its rather obvious contrivance.

Even after he’s launched into space, she refuses to send video messages to his ship.  When the crew lands on their first planet and discover there’s nothing but tidal waves of water, making it absolutely useless for colonization, 23 years pass in the single hour they’ve wasted there.  When McConaughey returns to the ship, he weeps uncontrollably for all the important family milestones he’s missed reflected in a series of clips featuring Lithgow, his son (who becomes a stubborn, emotionally distant Casey Affleck) and his grandchild who doesn’t survive.  He never meets the second one who does.

During the Earth time foolishly squandered on that ocean planet, his daughter grows up to be Jessica Chastain who lands a job at NASA working alongside a now wheelchair-bound Michael Caine.  On his death bed, he makes a rather startling admission which makes her reassess her conflicted feelings about her father.  Caine’s daughter, Anne Hathaway, is part of McConaughey’s crew and in a rare video message announcing his demise, Chastain wonders if she was in on the secret.

Down to two possible substitute planets to inhabit, McConaughey overrules Hathaway’s emotional attachment to a scientist in one world in favour of another presided over by an unbilled Matt Damon.  This turns out to be a very big mistake.

I first screened Interstellar when it hit theatres back in November 2014.  Very early on, I was mixed (I didn’t catch all the dialogue in real time which greatly affected my confidence going forward) and as the movie progressed, I zoned out as I found myself intellectually adrift from all the science jargon.  In the end, I couldn’t decide where I stood because so much went over my pea-brained, perfectionistic head.

How grateful I am for captions and the rewind button.  Watching the film again recently on Blu-ray (complete with stops for quick contemplation and pee breaks), I realized I missed all the funny jokes, most of which come courtesy of robots.  Once the space mission is under way, we meet TARS and CASE.  Humourously programmed to the specifications of their human masters, they’re basically obedient, life size, metallic, four-legged Kit Kat bars.  TARS’ attempts at humour in two scenes make you wish there was more of it.

Having a better handle on the early scenes which are crucial to establishing our connection to the characters and with full concentration regarding all the scientific matters pertaining to the plot, I now have a mostly clear understanding and true appreciation, even though, let’s face it, the big twist in the final act requires a huge suspension of disbelief.  I went with it, though, because of Interstellar’s strongest quality, its incredible special effects.  Even back in 2014, I couldn’t deny how spectacular the visuals are in this film.

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s best work, silence becomes its own character, most especially during the space travel scenes.  As that spinning space station rolls on beyond the Earth up close or past Saturn at a distance, the use of no sound is stunning.  When a major character meets a grisly demise, you hear the interior explosion for a second.  And then, as we quickly witness the damage done from the outside, absolute quiet.  Really effective.  I’ve been trying to think of another production that has used this technique but I’m drawing a blank.

When the space crew lands on these treacherous, distant globes, even though these sequences were shot in Iceland and Ireland, they feel otherworldly, especially the cold, white-rocked planet where you can’t breathe freely because there’s only ammonia in the air, not oxygen.

I liked all the performances.  For a while there, Matthew McConaughey seemed resigned to slumming it in bad romantic comedies, so it’s a relief to see him in a more satisfying dramatic role.  His breezy, familial charm neatly belies a tough survival instinct that serves him well over the course of the movie.  We like him, we care about him and we feel for his impossible undertaking and what he has abandoned to pursue it.

Anne Hathaway holds her own as one of his crew members.  It’s not exactly a surprise that these characters find themselves drawn to each other despite some occasional strategic tension although the movie wisely pushes that idea far into the background for the most part.  Wes Bentley and David Gyasi could’ve been relegated to nothing roles as the rest of the team but they deliver convincing performances and make the most of their limited screen time.  They’re smart characters in over their heads.

Chastain and Affleck do good work, as well, playing the adult versions of McConaughey’s children and I must acknowledge Topher Grace, a NASA doc, who continues to prove there’s more to him than sitcom parts.

Matt Damon’s sudden appearance in the final stretch jolts the movie at just the right time and temporarily turns it into an action film.  I love a good heel turn and God knows it’s necessary here.  Running close to three hours, Interstellar is definitely too long and could’ve easily been trimmed by a good 15-20 minutes.  About midway through, after the tidal wave planet fiasco, the film drags a bit, wallowing in failure and frustration, before thankfully regrouping and regaining its momentum.

Having seen the film a second time now, I understand why it didn’t receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, despite some critics like Richard Roeper arguing for its excellence.  Interstellar just doesn’t compare to Christopher Nolan’s best work, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy.  Hell, I don’t even think it’s as compelling as the Insomnia remake.  All of these superior efforts build tension in a much more forceful way where you become acutely aware of the clock.  Because we don’t know exactly how much time human beings on Earth have left before they’re wiped out completely because of the coming famine, you don’t feel the urgency of this seemingly doomed mission.  It doesn’t help that the movie’s pacing can be uneven at times.

As for the somewhat questionable scientific theories put forth, they are intriguing nonetheless and do lead to that memorable final act where all is revealed.  There are some nice, emotional pay-offs.

In the end, Interstellar is a good movie that acts and thinks like a great one without really earning it.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 24, 2017
3:21 a.m.

Published in: on July 24, 2017 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  

The Transformers: The Movie

Let’s see if I have this right.  The Decepticons, the villainous robots that can also pass for weapons, planes, audio equipment and insects, are settler-colonists who conquer their sworn enemies, the Autobots, the good robots who can also pass for cars, trucks, audio equipment and dinosaurs.

While the Decepticons occupy the Autobots on their home planet, secret plans for an eventual uprising take place on one of their two moons.  Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons who can also pass for a gun, sends a loyal surveillance spy (really a smaller, robotic bird that can transform into a tape recorder) to record their resistance plans.  This allows the Decepticons to sneak attack an Autobots shuttle in mid-flight in space and overtake it as it heads towards a secret base on a different planet as they hope to kill more Autobots.

In this scenario, the Decepticons are like Zionists, robot supremacists with a false sense of entitlement towards land that doesn’t belong to them, and the Autobots are like Palestinians, victims of an illegal occupation who resist being conquered and eliminated.

That’s a pretty provocative set-up for an animated kids movie.

But The Transformers: The Movie isn’t interested in politics.  All it cares about is action.  Lots of it.  Oh, and, because it’s an 80s movie, it has an unhealthy love for glam metal.  As two sets of transforming robots (I will always love that sound effect) attempt to obliterate each other on numerous planets, moons and in outer space for almost 90 minutes, there’s rarely a moment when some overwrought metal singer isn’t trying to hog the spotlight with “inspirational” lyrics.

Only one song really stands out.  The Touch, the cheesetastic anthem later improved upon by a surprisingly game Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. (How fitting that he ended up replacing Shia LaBeouf in the live-action Transformers series.)  It’s ridiculous but the original is also undeniably catchy, a true guilty pleasure.

Actually, there’s two, now that I think about it.  Because the Scotti Brothers were responsible for releasing the soundtrack, there’s “Weird” Al Yankovic, their most successful signing, paying homage to Devo in Dare To Be Stupid during a sequence set on a planet made entirely of spare robot parts.  Like some of the instrumental rock tracks here, it seems oddly out of place (it’s not exactly an ideal fight song), that is until an impromptu robot dance party breaks out.  Are the filmmakers admiting defeat?  Are they acknowledging they made a bad film?

Wait, I’m forgetting the title track, a revved-up metal pop version of the theme song from the original TV series (which began two years before this movie).  Performed by Lion (was Whitesnake unavailable?), we get a short version with minimum lyrics during the start of the opening titles and then a more fleshed out take during the end credits.  It’s so over the top (the singer is trying so hard to sell this shit) but the arrangement is unfortunately far from exciting.  The opening drum break is a little too similar to We’re Not Gonna Take It so it never gets off to a strong start.

Far from exciting is how I would also describe the animated action sequences that make up the bulk of The Transformers: The Movie (yes, that is its official title).  We just don’t care.  Although we can tell the difference between the two groups, there are too many characters to keep track of.  And because the film is dedicated to showcasing constant war at almost every turn, there’s very little time to develop their personalities in distinctly interesting ways, though admittedly there are modest, mostly unamusing efforts in that regard.  (Curiously, the live action Michael Bay films have the same problem even though the running times average a punishing two and a half hours.)

The Transformers: The Movie features some surprisingly famous voices.  A sometimes stiff Judd Nelson is Hot Rod, the Autobot who is close to a young boy, the son of a scientist who works with the occupied robots on one of their home planet moons.  (They’re the only human characters in the film.)  Robert Stack is fine as Ultra Magnus, another Autobot given an important responsibility.  Casey Kasem has a small, thankless role as an Autobot named Cliffjumper.  Ditto Scatman Crothers who voices Jazz, a robot Uhura.  Eric Idle is annoying as the awkwardly named Wreck-Gar, a Mexican-looking transformer that lives on that planet of junk and does nothing but quote TV, mostly commercial and newscast clichés.

In the film’s first scene, we meet Unicron.  (Nope, that’s not a typo.)  Believe it or not, this planet-sized transformer with an insatiable appetite (he’s a robot Death Star) is voiced by none other than Orson Welles which seems like a cruel joke.  (This was his last movie role.  He died before the film’s theatrical release.)  When Megatron loses a battle against the Autobots, the badly damaged Decepticon leader is summoned by Unicron who forces him to go on an inevitably doomed mission.  He wants him to retrieve this glowing ball of light known as the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a very misleading name as it turns out, and destroy it.

Too weak to continue on as Megatron (gotta love that name), Unicron transforms him into Galvatron who is suddenly voiced by…Leonard Nimoy?  (Not logical, Captain.)  When one of the Decepticons attempts to take over leadership duties in his absence, Galvatron swoops in during his swearing-in ceremony and, well, that’s the end of that attempted coup.

The Transformers: The Movie is probably best known for killing off a number of major characters including the most famous one from the original TV series.  It takes guts to knock off someone that important to your bottom line (remember, these were Hasbro toys originally) and it’s no wonder the decision was deeply unloved by fans.  (He was eventually resurrected Spock-like in the third and final season of the original TV show.)  Considering how he’s the best-voiced character in the film, it was clearly a mistake.  He’s irreplaceable.

Also surprising are the two curse words that pop up out of nowhere.  I never expected to hear “shit” from an Autobot.  And when Ultra Magnus tries to open the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, “damn” seems more than appropriate.  Funny how the Decepticons keep it clean.

Much has changed in the world of animation since the 1986 release of The Transformers: The Movie.  With the notable exception of anime, feature-length cartoons are now mostly three-dimensional computer-oriented ventures.  American studios, including Disney, have mostly abandoned 2D projects.

I have mixed feelings about this dramatic change.  Yes, the quality of the animation has greatly improved (more intricate details, more colourful), but the quality of the storytelling has greatly diminished.  The visuals of The Transformers: The Movie is by no means spectacular (it’s mostly average and unsuited for big screens) but the plot, while also not particularly good, at least has some ambition unlike recent dreck like The Secret Life Of Pets and Home.  There might not be much suspense (the film was meant as a bridge between the 2nd & 3rd seasons of the first TV series) but, gratuitous cartoon violence aside, at least it doesn’t pander.  The film isn’t stupid (well, except for that kangaroo robot court that bizarrely confuses “innocent” for “guilty”), just not interesting or deep.

If it had even more courage, better jokes and actual excitement, The Transformers: The Movie could’ve performed the ultimate transformation.  It could’ve been more than just an ad for Hasbro.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 16, 2017
3:33 p.m.

Published in: on July 16, 2017 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Cat In Paris

During the day, he comforts a young girl in mourning.  But by night, he’s an accomplice in a series of daring cat burglaries.

The twist?  He’s not human.

A Cat In Paris is an animated feature from France that became a surprise Oscar nominee in 2012.  It hadn’t even been released in North America at the time (it was first seen in Europe in late 2010).  Whether or not its unexpected recognition from the Motion Picture Academy played a major role, it did eventually have a limited cinematic run here that same year.

Reviews were exuberant.  Critics were, for the most part, enthralled.  Now that I’ve had a chance to screen it myself, I have to say this mass enthusiasm is greatly misplaced.

A Cat In Paris looks and feels like something rejected out of the National Film Board of Canada.  The animation, while colourfully pastel, does not wow you or overwhelm you.  It is deliberately crude and artsy.  Some shots do look great, but you’re certainly not going to mistake this for a Disney feature.

For its North American release, French voice actors from the original are replaced with Americans, some of whom employ various European accents.  (I can recall only one French-sounding supporting character.)

Marcia Gay Harden is a widowed cop whose husband, a fellow officer, was murdered by a gangster with a curious Cockney accent named Victor Costa.  (Harden doesn’t have any accent at all.)  He’s obsessed with an African artifact called The Colossus of Nairobi which he’s planning once again to steal.  (It has some strange connection to his childhood.)  During a police briefing, Harden informs her law enforcement colleagues that they need to keep an eye out during its secret relocation.  Knowing he’s going to make a play for it, this is Harden’s chance to finally nab the man who destroyed her family.

Meanwhile, her young daughter hasn’t spoken a word since her dad’s death.  (Gee, I wonder if she’ll ever talk again.)  The only thing keeping her going is that mysterious black tomcat that routinely kills and retrieves tiny lizards for her from nearby rooftops.  (Charming.)  She keeps them in a tiny box and when her overworked mother comes home from the precinct early on still talking to someone at work, she tries to show her her growing collection.  Harden’s indifference then her disgust (apparently it’s bad form for little girls to like creepy crawlies) pisses her off so much (leaving her bedroom, her mom takes yet another call on her cell phone in the middle of their own conversation) she throws the box against the wall.

Because she can’t be in two places at once, a guilt-ridden Harden hires a Scottish sounding Anjelica Huston to look after her kid.  She hates the cat.  He keeps sneezing at the smell of her rather potent perfume.  But Huston has a secret.  It’s no coincidence she sought out this broken family.

In the film’s first scene, the cat teams up with a nimble, nervy cat burglar who infiltrates a diamond company building (cleverly named Diacom) and easily outsmarts the two distracted security guards.  It’s played for laughs that never come.

The acrobatic thief apparently has no family or friends, just the cat who, for some reason, has no moral objections to helping him steal valuable items.  (In another scene, they rob a couple while they sleep.)  At first, it’s not clear why he even needs the cat.  He seems to be doing just fine on his own.  (Maybe he’s just lonely.)  But when he gets into a legal jam late in the film, you start to understand.

Like a typical episode of Seinfeld, all these storylines come together when Harden’s daughter, curious about where the cat goes at night, overhears Costa and his gang of loyal goons plotting to steal the Colossus.  (They’re not exactly discreet, which one of them openly acknowledges.)  When she gets caught, they go after her and she ends up temporarily hiding in the cat burglar’s place.  (The mobsters end up finding all his stolen loot in a secret room in the basement.)  When he comes home, he becomes surprisingly paternal and protective of her.

But then, while trying to lead the mob guys away from his new friend and the cat (who are headed towards the local zoo), Harden and her partner Matthew Modine arrest him and despite his many attempts to tell them the truth, they don’t believe a word he says.  By the time they realize he’s right, Harden’s daughter is missing.

A Cat In Paris has the curious distinction of feeling both overstuffed and incomplete.  (It runs a mere 65 minutes.)  Why does the cat burglar need all that valuable stuff?  Is he a collector?  Is he planning to sell it all?

Why is the cat burglar enamoured with Harden’s daughter when she exposed his secret?  Did Harden not do a thorough background check on Huston?  And why is she slow to realize the cat’s role in all the burglaries?

The film makes the mistake of trying to be too many things at once.  It’s a heist picture, a gangster movie, an action adventure, a revenge film, a drama, a thriller and a comedy.  It has no laughs, sadly, and the other elements, which aren’t as bad, aren’t strong enough to overcome its weak comic tone.  (I did admire the second musical cue, the string-heavy classical one, a thankfully recurring theme.  The slow, piano-driven motif is too derivative and dreary.)  There’s a tired running gag involving the cat and a yappy dog that keeps annoying his owner.  And Costa, in an apparent tribute to Reservoir Dogs, gives his accomplices lame nicknames (Mr. Frog, Mr. Baby, Mr. Potato) in order to protect their identities.

A Cat In Paris is also fairly predictable and by the time we reach the finale at the gothic Notre Dame Cathedral (which I have to admit is well animated), it’s not exactly suspenseful or gripping.  Things get a little weird and then in the end, the final result is a bit too neat and tidy.  Are they really trying to push two characters together romantically?  And how exactly does one character avoid serious prison time?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
4:19 a.m.

Published in: on July 11, 2017 at 4:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Booty Call

Roger Ebert actually liked this movie.  So did Gene Siskel.

I didn’t.

First, the title.  It’s deeply misleading.  It should’ve been called Double Date.

Tommy Davidson has been dating Tamala Jones for 7 weeks.  They haven’t had sex.  Why?  Because Jones wants to make sure he’s “the right one”.  Talk about antiquated thinking.  Wouldn’t you want to know immediately if you’re sexually compatible with this guy?  Why delay your disappointment if he’s not?

Davidson’s best friend is Jamie Foxx who constantly gives him a hard time about this.  They make a bet about whether Davidson will finally consummate his relationship on this particular night.  Jones’ best friend is Vivica A. Fox who lives directly across from her in their apartment building.  She correctly notes on multiple occasions that Jones is a big prude.

All four meet in a Chinese restaurant (the women live in Chinatown) where their server turns out to be an unfunny gay stereotype who hits on Foxx.  When Fox lays eyes on her date for the first time, she’s not impressed.  She doesn’t like his hair which leads to two obvious jokes.  But after Jones complains about a gangster’s lit cigar (she’s very anti-smoking), Foxx mosies on over there to politely ask him to put it out.  In Mandarin.  (He learned the language from kung-fu movies.)

When he returns triumphant to the table, Fox insults him in Mandarin.  They argue in Mandarin.  In English, she brags about being rich (yet she lives in the same building as Jones) while all he can boast about is his gold gas card (he’s doesn’t drive).  You know exactly where this is going.

After dinner, Fox cleans up at the pool table.  Then, it’s back to Jones’ place for a game of cards and a mutually unsexy game of footsie.  Jones has a little dog named Killa who plays a major role in putting the bickering Foxx and Fox together.  The joke is they don’t realize it.  Let’s just say it’s quite gross.

Fox has a weird fetish.  She gets turned on when her partners do impressions.  So, Foxx indulges her by citing famous quotes from Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, curious choices considering their well-known philandering.  His impressions aren’t particularly good.

Then he does Cosby, which takes on a whole new meaning today.  I’ll admit it.  One of his lines made me laugh.  He also throws in a little Captain Kirk, as well.

With Foxx and Fox out of the apartment, Jones finally decides to get it on with Davidson.  There’s a peculiar moment where she thinks she’ll die having sex if he doesn’t wear a condom.  (Does she not trust him?)  Unfortunately, when he pulls one out of its wrapping, it falls to the floor and that goddamn dog snatches it.  Why even bother trying to get it back?

When Davidson learns that Foxx doesn’t have any spares (he didn’t bring any), it’s off to the store to buy some more.  38 dollars later, Jones grumbles they’re lambskin, not latex.  So, Foxx and Davidson go to a different store where they encounter two more tired stereotypes, a couple of Indian immigrants, and a hypocritical churchgoing judge (a pre-stardom Bernie Mac) who lectures them on the sins of fornication.  (Cosby should’ve played this part.)  Back in Jones’ apartment, with everything seemingly back on track, Davidson proceeds to go downtown when the clearly germophobic Jones insists he use some Saran Wrap.

Say what?

With none in her kitchen, an increasingly irritated Foxx is dragged out of Fox’s apartment by Davidson one last time to go back to that same variety store run by the same two Indian guys to buy some.  But then a gunman shows up.  Foxx actually suggests they steal some food and booze because of the distraction but thankfully doesn’t go through with it.  When they attempt to sneak up on him, that allows one of the clerks to pull out an uzi and proceed to needlessly destroy his profits.  It should be noted that he completely misses the gunman.

Finally back in his girlfriend’s building and not knowing what the fuck he’s doing, Davidson makes a very dumb decision.  So does Foxx.  When you find out that Jones wanted Davidson to use the Saran Wrap on her not him, you start questioning his loyalty and his intelligence.

Thoroughly fed up, Foxx and Davidson decide to bolt.  The women plead with them to return.  Then, Foxx slips up, Davidson gets accidentally shot in the leg, and we’re suddenly in the ER where the cheap jokes and well-worn clichés continue to pile up rather quickly.

The misnamed, critically jackhammered Booty Call became a surprise, modest hit during its theatrical run 20 years ago.  Would I have laughed more if I saw it back then?  I’ll never know.  What I do know is that two laughs in 80 minutes is woefully inadequate for a sex comedy.  (The name of the gangster in the restaurant, a blatant groaner, is the only other funny moment.)

The film is so shallow, so strange and so obvious, it never gets on that comic roll it desperately needs to work.  What it thinks is truly outrageous is just plain annoying and icky.

Booty Call should’ve been a sexy, laugh riot.  Instead, it’s depressingly deflating.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 25, 2017
3:40 p.m.

Published in: on June 25, 2017 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Wolf Man (1941)

Besides its lack of genuine scares, The Wolf Man has a major credibility problem.  Larry Talbot is an idiotic, opportunistic sleaze and not at all sympathetic.

The son of Sir John Talbot, a wealthy scientist, Larry left Talbot Castle 18 years ago only to return because his older brother was killed in a hunting accident.  No longer playing second fiddle, he stands to inherit the entire estate as the sole heir.  (Is he really that sorry to not have to share all that dough?)

After fixing his father’s telescope in the family attic, Larry turns creepy as he spots a beautiful woman in an open, upstairs window.  If this were an 80s horror film, she’d be practically naked.  But because this is 1941 we’re talking about, she’s fully dressed and ready to go to work in her father’s antique shop downstairs.

Larry immediately visits the place hoping to get a date.  He hits on Gwen, the woman from the window, so relentlessly you know he’s not big on consent.  She repeatedly turns him down.  (“What big eyes you have, Grandma,” is his idea of flirtation.)  That does not stop him from announcing he’ll be outside the shop door at 8 p.m. expecting her to be there.  The fact that she is actually waiting for him when he arrives is particularly strange most especially when we find out not too long afterward that she’s engaged to another man.  That does not stop Larry from pursuing her.

Much to his annoyance, Gwen brings along a friend to have their palms read by travelling fortune tellers. During one fateful session, the one played by Bela Lugosi freaks out, warns Jenny, the friend, to get the hell out of there before transforming himself into a werewolf (actually a dog, for some unexplained reason) and killing her.  Thanks to a nifty cane with a silver, wolf-shaped handle he had just bought in the antique store (purely to impress a seemingly unimpressed Gwen), Larry kills the wolf not realizing it’s Bela.

From this point on, Larry and Gwen become controversial figures in this village.  She gets “slut” shamed for merely walking and talking with him.  And after a gravedigger gets murdered one night, Larry is correctly viewed by some of the gossipy townspeople as the prime suspect.  When he arrives at church for the funeral, everyone stares at him, even his own father.  He doesn’t stick around for the service.

Before he kills Bela, Larry gets bit.  (You never actually see it happen as he wrestles with him in dog form.)  But the wound disappears, soon to be replaced by the mark of the werewolf.  New victims have a pentagram magically show up on the palms of their hands that can only be seen briefly by their future killers.  When it shows up on Gwen’s hand late in the film, Larry realizes he needs to leave before the full moon returns.

But none of this would be happening at all if he had listened to Maleva, Bela’s fortune telling mother, who is not at all upset, for some reason, that he killed her son.  She gives him a special necklace that he is supposed to wear at all times to prevent him from transforming.  But the stupid idiot gives it to Gwen believing it will protect her from him.  He still attacks her in the film’s finale.

Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr., perhaps the first Method actor before such a term existed, does his best to make Larry Talbot a tortured everyman caught in a no-win situation.  But because he’s so domineering towards Gwen, a white man on the verge of inheriting extraordinary wealth from his father (now that he no longer has to compete with his brother) and a dolt about his own well-being, it’s extremely difficult to care about his preventable dilemma.

Even though the film only runs about 70 minutes, it takes about half the running time before we see Chaney in The Wolf Man get-up.  Below the waist, the make-up is terrific.  (The feet look the way they should.)  Above the waist?  Not so much.  He doesn’t really resemble a wolf.  Just a really hairy guy who needs a manicure.

And yet, the film is beautifully photographed in black and white (Blu-ray doesn’t just improve colour films), has a lovely production design for the most part (the castle and antique store interiors are particularly elegant) and features some tremendous camera work.  Note the crane shot in the attic scene when Sir John climbs the ladder to check out his telescope.  Very smooth, very cool.  Or the moment where he catches Larry just before he leaves the castle.  It’s perfectly framed showing the growing distance between father and son, and how the influence of Sir John still towers over his youngest child despite Larry’s considerable height and long absence from his life.  (In the telescope scene, note how Larry kneels down at one point, looking up at his father for approval after he fixes the device.)

Claude Rains is effortlessly good as Talbot Sr. but by God, why do they make him so skeptical of Larry’s werewolfism?  When the movie begins, there’s a graphic that notes that lycanthropy is “a disease of the mind”, according to science, Sir John’s area of expertise.  But according to legend (which is capitalized) and the people who live near Talbot Castle, sufferers do take on the physical characteristics of wolves and embark on killing sprees.  Why doesn’t anyone listen to them?

The local authorities don’t believe Larry when he says he killed a werewolf because they find Bela’s human body.  (When he tries showing his bite mark, it’s already healed.)  And when the gravedigger is offed, they’re convinced an animal did it, not a human, even though Larry’s tracks lead directly back to Talbot Castle.  They’re not smart enough to realize what the audience already knows.  Sir John himself is doubtful that Larry has been cursed by Bela’s bite, although he does agree to tie him to a chair in his bedroom, only to find himself face to face with his transformed son out in the nearby forest in the final act.  It shouldn’t take him this long to become a believer.

Evelyn Ankers has the rather thankless role of being Larry’s love interest which causes her nothing but grief.  First, because the guy won’t leave her alone.  Second, because the townspeople give her a hard time about it.  And third, and most absurdly, because she actually considers running away with him (she doesn’t break off her engagement) when he decides to leave town.  When did she go from being completely uninterested to completely besotted?  This is yet another one of those movies that claims with a straight face that if you wear a woman down long enough, she’ll eventually fall for you.  Nope.

The ending of The Wolf Man made it difficult for Universal to churn out traditional sequels like they did for Frankenstein.  So, instead, they resurrected the character for crossover films like House Of Dracula, House Of Frankenstein (neither of which are scary), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and the terribly unfunny Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and countless other franchise horror villains, death was never an obstacle when making shameless follow-ups.

Unlike its predecessor Werewolf Of London, the original Wolf Man has been mostly credited with creating the basic template for all the many imitators that have since followed (although there is some dispute about how much screenwriter Curt Siodmak actually invented rather than borrowed).  But historical importance aside, it’s not much of a scarefest.  Now over 75 years old and greatly hindered by the restrictions of the now thankfully discarded Hays Code, it can’t help but show its deteriorating age.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 24, 2017
4:27 p.m.

Published in: on June 24, 2017 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment