Jul 27, 2021

TEOS TURNS TEN


This blog is exactly ten years old today.

FUCK.

I started The End of Summer three houses, two jobs, and one pandemic ago, and for no good reason. Sure, I may have taken a couple-three years off to focus on other things, but here I am once again filling the coffers with writings new and old, and once again for no good reason. I had a lot of different ideas for things I wanted to cover, especially movies I wanted to highlight that I felt never really got their due, but that was all I had in mind. Since then, it led me to writing for several different dot commers, including Daily Grindhouse, which for some reason continues to let me crack wise for them on a regular basis. I've also written or co-written several books, one of which takes the name of this very blog, and it was because of my self-imposed challenge to write something at least on a weekly basis to practice my chops that made all of those books possible.

I humbly offer sincere thanks to anyone who has remained with me all these years, who took the time to read and respond, who continued to send emails during TEOS' downtime to offer their hopes that it would return in some manner. This blog has never commanded huge VPMs, but those who visit do so with loyalty, and that's even better.

I won't end this post with "here's to ten more" because thinking that far into the future causes me too much anxiety. Instead, I'll end with a quote from one of my all-time faves:

"Why don't we just wait here for a while... see what happens?"

Jul 25, 2021

CHUCK (2017)

The boxing movie is coming dangerously close to eclipsing the baseball movie as the most prominent sport depicted in cinema. There have been the major or minor classics (most of them starring Sylvester Stallone), the very okay (starring…Sylvester Stallone) to the downright pitiful (um….yep). But between the first and most recent Rocky/Creed films, there have been the well-made and sappy Cinderella Man, the well-made but overwrought Million Dollar Baby, and…whatever Grudge Match was. (Besides terrible). They have been founded on true stories, semi-true stories, or complete works of fiction. What sets Chuck off from the pack is that it’s a boxing film that doesn’t focus much on boxing, instead spending its time focusing on lead pugilist Chuck Wepner, whose reputation as a “bleeder” in the boxing world, as well as his somewhat stunted presentation (Whoo! New Jersey!) would inspire Stallone not just to write Rocky, but to fashion his Rocky Balboa character after him. And that’s where Chuck’s conflict comes into play. While one might argue that every boxing film is about your hero fighting him or herself, this more obviously plays out when he or she fights an insurmountable foe by film’s end, declaring victory either in or out of the ring. Instead, Chuck looks at Chuck, the man, not Chuck, the boxer. It looks at a man suddenly struggling with his own identity after the fictionalized version of him has been washed across silver screens and earned a multitude of Academy Awards. Chuck doesn’t culminate in that final fight against the insurmountable foe because the insurmountable foe he fights the entire film is himself – his demons, his reckless lifestyle, his selfishness, and his sense of worth.

Chuck features an eclectic ensemble of actors, all of whom do absolutely phenomenal work, from the lead performance by Liev Schreiber all the way down to comedian Jim Gaffigan, who appears only in a handful of scenes. Character actor Ron Perlman, face shaved and beneath a bald cap, delivers a small performance that allows him to go beyond just being Ron Perlman. Elizabeth Moss, too, excels as Wepner’s wife, Phyllis, nailing both the Jersey accent as well as the attitude. And then there’s Naomi Watts, nearly unrecognizable beneath the wig and the fake boobs, stealing every scene in which she appears. (And yes, Stallone – or rather, Chuck’s version of Stallone – also appears, portrayed by Morgan Spector, who nails the actor’s voice and intonation, but not quite the look...mullet notwithstanding.)

Chuck’s tone, too, helps set it off, as right off the bat it’s clearly more interested in being an American Hustle-style boxing film rather than just another overly dramatic story about the successful underdog. Marrying together genuine footage from Wepner’s career, along with recreations seamlessly weaved within, Chuck tells a story that you think might be familiar because you know the Rocky series by heart, but by film’s end, you’ll realize you don’t know anything about the real fighter who went the distance.

Despite the impressive ensemble, Chuck is one of those films that’s easy to write off before giving it a chance – “inspired by a true story” has become the new go-to for marketing films that have even a casual connection to reality – but Chuck impresses with its excellent performances and its reliance on a boxer’s fight against himself rather than a larger, meaner foe. It’s not taking things as seriously as the best Rocky films did, but it doesn’t pull any punches, either. 

Jul 23, 2021

LOST AFTER DARK (2017)

Unless you're someone who enjoys a nice slice of cinematic cheese every so often, the majority of audiences hope that whatever film they've chosen to give the next two hours of their lives will be good, or at least entertaining. No one ever hopes for a bad film. On top of that, certain films command certain higher expectations, either because of the pedigree of talent involved, the source material that's inspired the plot, or because of the gimmick being utilized. Lost After Dark is one of those latter examples. A film built on resurrecting the dead teenager flicks of the 1980s, Lost After Dark had its heart in the right place and its blood all over the walls, but it didn't quite nail the mood, look, and feel it was attempting to evoke.

Speaking of heart in the right place, one thing that can be mentioned in the film's favor is that its adoration for the genre is ever in place, and director Ian Kessner and his co-writer Bo Randsel know their shit. From the cast of characters being named after beloved horror icons (the guys after horror directors, the girls after their muses), to lines of dialogue lifted from famous horror film sequences, even down to the poster design that is pure Jack Sholder's Alone in the Dark, the love that Lost After Dark's creators hold for the slasher genre is palpable and cannot be questioned, but unfortunately that love did not put them on their own path to contributing a memorable edition to the genre, either as a film itself, or at the least as a successful homage.

And that's where things get hairy: straddling the line between successful homage and standalone film. Throwback horror has returned to the genre in a big way over the last decade, ushered in by the likes Ti West's House of the Devil, Jim Mickle's Cold in July, and the Tarantino/Rodriguez opulence fest Grindhouse double feature. However, what Lost After Dark's filmmakers have failed to realize is that titles like House of the Devil or Cold in July or The Guest have something in common: not only do they successfully preserve the era of horror history they are homaging, but even if that aspect sails completely over a viewer's head, on their own they're still excellent films. Your having failed to see titles like Race with the Devil or The Tenant won't lessen your enjoyment of House of the Devil because on its own it still works quite well. If you've never seen a John Carpenter film in your entire life (what a dope!), you'll still be able to enjoy the eerie lunacy of It Follows.

The same can't be said for Lost After Dark, which is depending on your having seen a healthy dose of '80s horror to "get" it, but not offering a fresh take on well-worn concepts. Typical character archetypes are certainly on hand: the virginal lead, the wholesome boy next door, the asshole prepster, his bitchy socialite girlfriend, and yeah, the token black guy, complete with gigantic fake wig and hair pick. Rounding out the cast are the overweight pothead clearly emulating Shelly from Friday the 13th Part 3 (nice touch) and Frank Cunningham, aka Mr. C, who embodies The Shining's Dick Halloran in the form of the kids' high school principal (played by an utterly wasted Robert Patrick). And the filmmakers took great pains to utilize an '80s-infused visual design and texture, right down to the print damage and white speckling (which, weirdly, only show up every once in a while) attempting to give it the appearance of a film that's spent the last thirty years in storage. But very few moments of praise are reserved entirely for when it does circumvent expectations (which can't be discussed without spoilage), but not nearly enough of this kind of free-thinking was on hand to warrant separating Lost After Dark from the rest of its well-meaning but vapid colleagues. 

The more romantic horror fan may find a lot to like about Lost After Dark, being that, as previously mentioned, its heart was in the right place and the dozens of odes to the horror genre (including a cameo from Rick Rosenthal, director of the pretty-good Halloween 2 and pretty-bad Halloween: Resurrection) will possibly make said horror devotee feel warm and fuzzy. As an homage, it ranks somewhere near the bottom of the pile, and as a standalone film judged entirely on its own efforts and not what came before, is hardly worth the effort or your time. Still, with it being a mindless, bloody and seldom clever ninety minutes of mayhem, sometimes for the less discerning horror fan, that can be enough. The throwback movement is still going strong, and thankfully has churned out some great titles, but unfortunately, Lost After Dark is left wandering around in the woods.

Jul 19, 2021

BLOOD MONEY (2017)

  

Day by day, the “boys club” of Lionsgate continues to increase their output. What is this boys club? Why, it’s a cadre of actors who seem to be making a large part of their living by appearing in quiet Lionsgate releases destined for the VOD and DTV market. If there were a President of this club, it would be Bruce Willis. Nicolas Cage would be Vice President. And John Cusack seems to be gunning for a seat at the table.

Shaking loose of the generally underwhelming and tepid thrillers that these actors tend to grasp onto, Blood Money is actually fairly well made and pretty entertaining, stressing characterization as much as plot machinations. This comes courtesy of Lucky McKee, the cult director whose career so far consists of mostly horror titles, including May, his debut and still most celebrated of his career. In my write-up, 20 Alternative Films for Halloween Night, where I covered his second film, The Woods, I’d wondered just what in the world McKee had been up to. And now I know: directing John Cusack thrillers.

And speaking of, John Cusack is a lot of fun in this, trying on a villainous role (which he’s done before), but playing his character as a guy entirely new to crime and sort of recognizing along the way that he’s in over his head. His Miller is an underachiever; someone lazy, uninspired, and not that disciplined, and he derives a lot of unexpected comedy that somehow works. As he frantically fires bullets into the woods at our terrorized kids, he actually apologizes — and you can tell he means it. It’s a little bizarre, but Cusack makes it work, and it honestly makes you like his character, even if you probably shouldn’t.

Helping that conflicted take on his character is the extreme unlikability of another character: Lynne, as played by Willa Fitzgerald. You’ll never encounter a more unlikeable character who is still supposed to be a “good guy” in cinema — ever. Of that I’m confident. Early on she reveals her ruthlessness and selfishness, and from then on it only gets worse. (At one point, even Cusack’s villainous Miller says to her, “You are just a terrible, terrible person,” which is not just the best laugh-line in the movie, but one that puts her entire character in the audience’s crosshairs: I mean, if the villain thinks she’s terrible…) She transitions into such a cold and unfeeling person that the more her two male friends, both of whom are smitten with her, follow along, the more you begin to wonder if McKee and screenwriters Jared Butler and Lars Norbergare are making Blood Money less about an easy payday and more a statement on the utter spinelessness of men and the abuse they’re willing to suffer in the presence of a pretty face. (One of these spineless men is Ellar Coltrane, whose acting has only marginally improved since his appearance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.)

Blood Money is worth a one-time viewing, if for no other reason than to witness Cusack’s odd and at times hilarious villain and some nice directorial flourishes by McKee. Otherwise, it’s a fairly ho-hum thriller with an ending that will leave you extremely aggravated. 

Jul 17, 2021

MATINEE (1993)

Lots of filmmakers, especially those in the horror genre, were just kids during the 1960s when the Cuban Missile Crisis was a real threat to the existence of America and stability of the overall world. (If you’re a fan of the horror genre but have never seen the documentary The American Nightmare, you absolutely should, as this topic is discussed by all its horror director participants.) Living through this experience, while at the same time escaping to the cinema to see an array of B-pictures made by filmmakers eager to exploit this fear with their tales of gigantic insects or mutants caused by radiation, directly inspired many of them to become filmmakers. Joe Dante is definitely among them. 

Matinee is Dante’s ode to both that era of filmmaking as well as the turbulent political times of unrest that inspired it. Primarily known as a director adept at mixing horror and comedy, Matinee is more removed from Dante's generally utilized horror/comedy hybrids, though the genres are still a huge part of the overall experience. What results is an almost Capra-esque look back at what’s still considered to be the height of American exceptionalism, despite the recent memories of World War II still looming large in the minds of citizens and the threat of nuclear annihilation. America (especially the Baby Boomer generation) looks back on the 1950s and believes this was the last time society made sense. Dante captures that blemish-free illusion in spite of the international unrest, and like the fictional Lawrence Woolsey (based on the very real William Castle, director of the original House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and The Tingler), he looks to the power of cinema as escapism, especially in a genre that would allow Americans to exorcise their fears of the real world and lose themselves in a silly monster movie romp.

In this regard, Matinee is a success; where it falters, however, is in trying to tell too many stories and involving too many characters. Along with the international tensions, the drama of a young boy dealing with his father being stationed on a battleship, and the delight of John Goodman hamming it up as a shuckster filmmaker/promoter, we get not just one, nor two, but three teen love antics, a pair of shadowy and mysterious men covertly subduing crime while working on behalf of Woolsey, and a last-act “destruction” sequence that feels more perfunctory and confusing than it does exciting or thematically appropriate. Dante’s original intention for Matinee was much more mystical and esoteric, and much more firmly rooted in the horror genre, so that the finished product seems unfocused isn’t a surprise.

As a nostalgia piece, Matinee is a delight. As a cohesive narrative, it’s less effective, but Dante’s love for the time period and the silly radiation monster movies of the 1950s’ and ‘60s definitely comes through. This is Joe Dante at his most nostalgic and mature, so with that in mind, Matinee is easy to recommend.

Jul 16, 2021

MISSING ROMERO


In honor of George A. Romero on the anniversary of his death, let's take a moment to remember his cameo in his masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead, in which be broke the fourth wall like a total fuckin' boss.

Jul 14, 2021

THE CHURCH (1989) (AKA DEMONS 3) & THE SECT (1991) (AKA DEMONS 4)

There’s no bad movie like a bad Italian movie (♪ like no bad movie I know ♪). 

Michele Soavi is proof of this, because he directed one of the all-time greats with StageFright (Deliria), a sort of slasher/sort of giallo/all of a movie where the killer wears a giant owl mask and uses a chainsaw. It’s glorious and stupid and one I revisit often. Right around the same time that killer owl was cutting up stage actors, another Italian director named Lamberto Bava was directing a similarly chaotic movie called Demons (Dèmoni) — the gold standard when it comes to terribly amusing Italian horror. And this movie, about a theater audience whose exhibiting horror film about demons inadvertently raises real demons that begin possessing and/or tearing apart cinemagoers, would naturally spawn a “series.” Demons 2 highlights the same level of disaster, this time in a high-rise apartment building, but somehow without the same level of enjoyment. Officially, the Demons series would be done, but unofficially, further sequels would be made. (Italians could make fake sequels like no one else.) Among them would be The Church (aka Demons 3), and The Sect (aka The Devil’s Daughter…aka Demons 4). Except for the basic concept of demonism, neither film has anything to do with the Demons series (boo!), but when it comes to the histrionics of poor Italian horror filmmaking, they are all kindred spirits (yay!). (And in case you were desperate to know, there are TWO MORE unofficial Demons 3’s: Bava’s own unrelated television effort, The Ogre, released on video as Demons 3: The Ogre, and Umberto Lenzi’s Black Demons, which is exactly what you think it is, and which I need in my life ASAP.)

When compared to the official Demons movies, The Church is actually pretty competent, adhering to a more broad and typical horror concept. What I mean is that it makes sense. Mostly. The Church is also more close-knit with the Demons series in that it’s more overtly about demonic possession and drippy, gooey monsters. Though it features too many characters, some of whom serve absolutely no purpose (sorry, but, I’m looking right at you, Asia Argento), The Church at least embraces a more standard horror experience, even if it does feature a little demon fucking by its ending. 

Director Michele Soavi is a genuine whizz with the camera, getting to show off a little flare that falls by the wayside in The Sect and his far more entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) StageFright. He even manages a handful of eerie images, mostly having to do either with hallucinations of the devil himself (maybe) or a horde of possessed church personnel watching his second coming (ewww) as the camera rushes by them in the bowels of the church basement. But, except for some moody gothic atmosphere, along with a few gonzo moments of violence (a woman being decapitated in the film’s Crusades-era prologue and her head being kicked around by horses was a goddamn delight), The Church is still a pretty lackluster experience. Typical in Italian horror from this decade, everyone has been redubbed, even if they were speaking English on set to begin with, making every performance awkward and emotion-free.

Unlike Soavi’s StageFright, which was full-on nuts and only out to spill some blood and dazzle the audience with its preponderance of mystifying set pieces, The Sect (aka The Devi's Daughter — don't forget now!) is out to proffer a more “mature” experience, with an emphasis on mystique peppered with psychedelic hallucinations and dream sequences. And one might argue, “What’s wrong with maturity?” Well, I’ll tell you: sometimes it’s boring. Really boring. And that’s what The Sect is: really boring. I know there are an alarming amount of Italian horror fans out there who would tear me asunder for even suggesting such a thing, but, as they say, if it walks like a duck that’s boring and talks like a duck that’s boring, that’s one boring fucking duck. Speaking of ducks, and in spite of The Sect’s insistence on maturity, it still boasts a few moments of pure absurdism which with Italian horror can be riddled — to throw out just a couple, there’s the heroine’s nightmare where she’s pecked apart by the fakest looking bird you have ever seen, or the scene where a pet bunny rabbit goes channel surfing with a remote control.

What is this? Why is this? What’s happening?

Kelly Curtis, sister of Jamie Lee Curtis you’re just now finding out not only exists but actually acted in the ‘80s and ‘90s (she even had role in Trading Places), proves in The Sect that she shouldn’t be acting. Of course, I won’t profess to be an authority on this second Curtis and maybe she’s decent in her own right. Perhaps it was the curse of the Italian horror film, as American actors in Italian productions often offer shaky performances. But based on The Sect…yeesh. Really, The Sect as a whole…yeesh.

Keeping up with Italian horror franchises can be tough because they often deviate to an alarmingly complicated degree depending on the territory in which you're trying to watch them. (See the Zombi series for proof of this, which is so chaotic that its wiki entry provides a helpful breakdown showing which unrelated Italian movies that happen to contain zombies are considered official Zombi entries depending on which country you're talking about.) One thing is for certain: Demons, the crazed, cocaine-addled monster flick that started it all, is still the final word on this sub-genre of Italian horror. Everything that comes after bearing its moniker offer their own share of amusement, but you should definitely tread at your own risk.

Jun 25, 2021

DAY OF THE DEAD: BLOODLINE (2018)

Isn’t it bad enough that George A. Romero, the mastermind behind the holiest of zombie cinema and the godfather of a subgenre that has since been running rampant, is no longer with us? And even before he passed, wasn’t it also bad enough that we had to witness the backsliding of the filmmaker firsthand and suffer through the pedestrian schlock that was Diary of and Survival of the Dead? But every master eventually reaches that point where his better days are behind him — not a single one of them, not even Hitchcock, were as good at the end as they were at the beginning.

And during this two-decade period of Romero regression, his works were exploited in both remake and sequel form. 2004’s Dawn of the Dead managed a successful rebirth, but 2008’s Day of the Dead did not. The less said about the Romero-less Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (not a word) and Creepshow 3, the better. And the numerous remakes of Night of the Living Dead continue to flood the marketplace, which, outside of Tom Savini’s authorized remake (and written by Romero), have been as lifeless as you might imagine.

The presence of a “major” studio might give a Romero fan hope when they see a familiar title and concept coming down the pike, similar to how the critically and financially successful Dawn of the Dead remake was released by Universal Studios. But none of the other titles mentioned above were released by anything approaching a studio. All of them were quiet direct-to-video releases — and for a reason: awfulness. So when Lionsgate announced the existence of Day of the Dead: Bloodline, neither a sequel nor a remake but a “retelling,” there was momentary cause for optimism. Would it touch on the social commentary and political subtext as Romero’s films had previously? Probably not. After all, the Dawn redux didn’t — it was openly more interested in human drama and zombie carnage than anything else — so that didn’t necessarily negate this new Day of the Dead right off the bat.

Know what did, though? Every single thing else about it. This more than includes Johnathon Schaech’s ultra-evil zombie that looks waaaaay too much like Heath Ledger’s Joker.

If you’re in the mood to be in awe of how something baring a familiar title can be so unrelentingly stupid, then please, by all means, see Day of the Dead: Bloodline. It contains the cheapest looking sets, the worst acting, and the laziest storytelling you’ll ever see in a film that could still be considered a somewhat anticipated title, given the legacy to which it’s attempting to attach itself. It does absolutely nothing new, and with zero fucks given. It’s the worst episode of Fear the Walking Dead taken down five hundred million rungs. It’s one of the most pitiful movies I’ve ever seen, and this is coming from someone who has previously suffered through that other Day of the Dead remake, that other Day of the Dead sequel, and Romero’s own lackluster swan songs. As I write this, a television series based on Day of the Dead is in production, with none other than Astron-6 member Steven Kostanski (PG: Psycho Goreman) helming. Dear god, please restore some class and brains to this title that's otherwise been beaten to death.

Run away as fast as the zombies run in Day of the Dead: Bloodline, or else the end result will be the same: there will be no survival of this dead.



May 28, 2021

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) — FULL CBS BROADCAST, 1979

To lazily borrow some of this earlier Dawn of the Dead television promo post, pandemic lockdown and all the extra stuck-at-home time it afforded pushed me into embarking on an ambitious video project. File this one under fan edit: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead as it may have looked if it premiered on network television in the late '70s, specifically December of 1979, modeled on the 1981 broadcasts of Halloween on NBC and The Exorcist on CBS

As the world continues to regress into a filthy toilet that refuses to flush, instead doing the same laps around the same bowl over and over, I've been immersing myself in way-back-when pop culture more and more as a means of comfort and escape, which led me to collecting recordings of network broadcasts of movies from the '70s and '80s with their original commercials intact. You can get lots of these on The Internet Archive, some more on Youtube, and if you really do your due diligence, from other collectors. In doing this, I've been able to collect some of my favorite movies in broadcast form, all with their original commercials, which is the most entertaining part. I can't tell you why older commercials are so hilarious and charming. Is it the corny approach to marketing, the awful skits, the dated fashions, or even the commercials that, by today's standards, are actually kind of politically incorrect? Whatever it is, there's something self-owning about a commercial trying to confidently sell you a product you've never heard of because it no longer exists, but at the same time, there's something oddly comforting about it, too — it's a return to simpler times, or at least a return to the times in which our bubbling cauldron of sins and hate lived under the surface of the world and wasn't so in-your-face throughout every 24-hour news cycle.

After accumulating all my must-have titles of these old broadcast recordings, including original airings of Dark Night of the Scarecrow and the Bob Wilkins Creature Features presentation of The Fog, one title eluded me, however: 1978's Dawn of the Dead, Romero's tale of four people taking refuge inside the abandoned Monroeville shopping mall from the zombie-ridden world that surrounds them — not because this broadcast was difficult to track down, but because it never existed; the movie's initially-issued X-rating almost ensured it would never be aired even on cable television, let alone a network station. With that, I decided to, as faithfully as I could, recreate what it may have looked like had CBS made the very reckless decision to present it for broadcast. Of course, I had to decide in which form to present the movie — meaning, would I include it as-is, squibs and all? Or should I really pursue making it look like a genuine broadcast for network television and cut out all the violence and bloodletting? After much back and forth, I decided it was necessary to go the censoring route. I know, I know — neuter Tom Savini's majestic gore gags? Who on earth would do that to such a genre masterpiece, and one especially known for its special effects? It all sprang from this amusing realization that Dawn of the Dead is the last movie a network would ever consider for broadcast — at least during that late-'70s era. Though it plays tame these days when compared to stuff like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and every show by Kurt Sutter for FX, the idea of cutting out all the gore from Dawn of the Dead for a hypothetical television broadcast became hilarious to me because it's such an antithetical title to show to a mass audience, especially when being presented by one of the anchor networks in all of television. (I was partially inspired to do this after watching ABC's 1979 Taxi Driver broadcast because so much of its content and dialogue had to be cut out that the remainder of the movie comes off as somewhat incoherent.)

Without further masturbation, my entire "CBS broadcast" of Dawn of the Dead is below, "recorded" by a Pittsburgh VCR in December of 1979, containing a VHS rip of the movie (edited for content), "original" 1979/1980 commercials (which naturally include TV spots for landmark horror films released that year), and CBS promos, all presented in purposely dubbed-over-many-times garbage quality. Nearly every commercial that's not a TV spot is a nod to something in Dawn of the Dead, so keep your eyes eagled. Whether you check it out just to catch a flick you've seen so many times before in a different form, or because you "get" the elaborate joke that it is (my edits are purposely clumsy, and don't miss my twist on the end credits), I hope you enjoy this standard-definition grindhouse experience. If you watch, drop a comment below and let me know what you think: you'll undoubtedly be nicer than people on Youtube.

May 26, 2021

AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)

The breakdown of the family unit is one of the more disturbing themes at play in cinema, only because it's inherent in us to desire a close relationship to those with whom we share a history, bloodline, and hereditary traits. To be born among people with whom we'll eventually have a falling out, or worse, is one of those fears that's always simmering beneath the surface. Because if we can't rely on our family, on whom can we rely? That's a really scary concept to posit, and unfortunately, it's something that happens more often than it should. It's starting to become more commonplace to pick up a newspaper and see a headline about a father killing his son, or a son killing his father, or a father and son going out and killing people together, as if it's part of a sick and twisted bond they share. Based on a true story, At Close Range, which one might describe as a southern gothic crime noir (the film takes place in Tennessee, but the actual events occurred in Pennsylvania), due to its appropriate amount of shadows, smoky rooms, and darkness, asks if a person's character can be stronger than their lineage - if a person can overcome his inherited physical and hereditary traits and prove he's much more than a genetic duplication of the family tree that preceded him.

Sean Penn and Christopher Walken as Brad Jr. and Sr., respectively, play an uncanny son and father, down to their piercing eyes and their hard features (screaming sandy blonde hair notwithstanding). Even when the film begins, and before they are reunited after years of estrangement, the film suggests  Brad Jr. is already proving  the apple may not fall far from the tree, engaging in the kind of reckless behavior that supersedes teen hijinks and instead suggests  he's a kid with very little to lose. But once father and son are reunited, and the former begins taking the latter under his wing, involving him in the more nefarious parts of his crime-filled life, the bond that initially forms between them takes a pretty devastating turn halfway through. Brad Jr. realizes  the bond between father and son can be easily overcome by the desire for self-preservation. Meaning, there's nothing Brad Sr. won't do if it means keeping himself out of prison.

Like De Niro, the modern-day Walken is barely an indication of how good he used to be, and how effortlessly he could play unhinged and disturbing characters. His Brad Sr. is clearly the villain, but only from an audience perspective. We know he's bad because of our omniscient view of everything ongoing. But Brad Jr. is blinded by his familial ties to his father, while also being somewhat blinded by wanting more for himself - his own fair slice of the American Dream - besides working overtime every week in a supermarket or a garage. Brad Sr. doesn't exude villainy; he doesn't come across as an obvious antagonist. He smiles at his son and buys him a car and invites him into his line of work - one which has the potential to pay off big time. Walken has the uncanny ability of pulling off likable villains because as an actor he's naturally likable.

Penn, too, delivers an excellent performance, and this during the early part of his career. Though he teeters a bit too close to going over the top in some of the more dramatic scenes (including the final confrontation between father and son), At Close Range was an indication he was going to be an actor to watch. It's also cool, since this is a film about the family unit, to see him share the screen with his real-life brother, Chris Penn (most famous for having played Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs, and who died in 2006 of a drug overdose), who plays his on-screen brother. Obviously the knowledge that they're brothers, but also their clear resemblances to each other (along with the fact that the boys' real-life mother, Eileen Ryan, plays their on-screen grandmother), lends a sincerity to a film emphasizing the impact of a family in turmoil.

At Close Range is a tough film to watch - entirely all to do with the effectiveness of the conflict and the realism of the performances. Director James Foley, whose films (and television episodes) are well-known for their rapid fire and cutting dialogue (his most well-known is certainly Glengarry Glen Ross, which your annoying co-workers who have never touched hands with sales probably quote every day), dials back the character exchange and relies more on mood and that earlier mentioned inherent fear of the destruction of the family unit. Take all that, add a remarkable supporting cast (David Strathairn! Crispin Glover! Tracey Walter!), and you end up with a film that's now thirty-five years old, but whose themes of betrayal and the familial bond will be forever ageless.

James Foley has the dubious honor of being one of the most underrated filmmakers working today. Insiders, thankfully, know this, as he consistently gets some pretty high-profile gigs (Netflix's House of Cards for one), but considering he has the skills behind the camera and has mastered the spoken word like Quentin Tarantino but without all the flamboyance, it's kind of a shame  he's not a household name. One day that could all change, but for now, as his back catalog drips slowly to Blu-ray, here's hoping his work becomes even more appreciated by newer generations.

May 24, 2021

12 STRONG (2018)

  

I don’t want to sound insensitive or dismissive, but can we please have a moratorium on 9/11? Can we all just agree that it happened, it was terrible, and our country’s been stuck in neutral ever since? As typical, following 9/11, Hollywood didn’t waste much time in finding ways to capitalize on the worst attack on our country in the history of ever, and soon a wide-ranging collection of genre-hopping films all came together and assembled the most depressing shared cinematic universe yet. Some of these actually managed to be pretty good, like Paul Greengrass’ harrowing United 93 and Kathryn Bigelow’s duo of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. And lest we not forget about Oliver Stone’s atypically maudlin and non-controversial World Trade Center, about which we actually all did forget. For every one title you remember, two or three are existing in the foggiest banks of your memory — probably where they belong. 9/11 has become so prominent in storytelling that it should have its own sub-genre label.

At the risk of again sounding insensitive, we’re coming dangerously close to 9/11 becoming a cliché. 12 Strong proves that — an absolutely lifeless, generic, bland, and unimpassioned telling of military forces engaging against the Taliban months following the attack. We’re back in the desert, kids, populated by American soldiers with nicknames who are tough and stoic and who have wives and who love their wives and America. They are led by Captain Mitch Nelson, with a performance by Chris Hemsworth that is absolutely out-of-the-box soldier as purchased via Amazon Third Party, slightly used but in otherwise good shape (contains none of the original packaging). And he’s as boring to watch as he’s ever been, which is impressive, considering how boring he generally is. You see, Mitch Nelson said to commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Bowers, an initially surprising appearance of Rob Riggle (until I tell you that the dude is a bonafide marine in real life), that 9/11 was an awful thing and he's the one who has to do something about it, namely lead his squad and make the Taliban pay. Then he decides to not die while in Afghanistan because he promised his wife he wouldn’t die. A flag waves. He means it. America/freedom.

Even if we want to scrape away the tragic and sad circumstances that surround 12 Strong and look at it either as a wartime drama or an action film, sorry — still boring. The sequences that find the soldiers directly engaging with the enemy lack suspense. Whether our soldiers die or not feels like no consequence, because beyond their mini opening prologues where each of them says goodbye to their wives, little is done to promote them as actual people. If you know half their names by film’s end, I’d be both impressed and convinced you were lying. (Why are you in this, Michael Shannon?)

Critiquing films based on true stories, especially when those stories involve such massive tragedies experienced by real people, is a slippery slope. To pass judgment on a dramatization of such tragedy and the actors who brought those characters to life feels as if judgment is being passed on the tragedy itself, as well as those real people. The soldiers as depicted in 12 Strong really did those things. They were real, and brave, and selfless. And they deserved a far better film about their actions.

May 21, 2021

THE GOOD, THE BLAND, & THE UGLY — THREE STEPHEN KING ADAPTATIONS

Have you guys heard of Stephen King? He's the one who wrote that book about the evil car that shits out a monster bat.

Just joshin'. Of course you know who Stephen King is. The man isn't just the most prolific and well-known author of all time, but so many adaptations have been made of his work that by now he warrants having his own streaming service. Like the books themselves, some of these adaptations are brilliant and some are lousy. The three titles below represent every stop on the quality spectrum, with one of them netting an Academy Award and the other netting something like 37 sequels, all equally terrible. Though studios continue pumping out movies and television series based on his works on a yearly basis, it makes sense that the most infamous adaptations are based on his most infamous stories, like the ones below, all of which were written more than thirty years ago.

THE GOOD

Misery is probably in the top five of all-time best Stephen King flicks. Directed by Rob Reiner, who found similar acclaim with his adaptation of King’s “The Body” as Stand By Me, it’s an absolute classic and an astounding example of what the genre can do with an original concept and horror centered around adults. King’s novel, written from the point of view of an author known very much for one style of writing and the fears of how his fan base will react should he ever venture into new territory, was obviously a personal work, but Reiner took great care of that concept and transplanted it into an adaptation that honors that fear while guiding it into a remarkable finish with little hints of gallows humor.

Kathy Bates won the Oscar for her portrayal of the deranged Annie Wilkes, and rightfully so, because she’s astounding to watch. Every line of hers is quotable, and impeccably and specifically delivered; her ability to propel from sweet and aloof to manically unhinged is an absolute marvel. James Caan, too, excels with the material, managing to overcome being confined to a bed for 90% of his performance, and even after having seen Misery a dozen times, his final fight scene with the murderous Annie Wilkes is still nerve racking.

The special effects by KNB, though seldom used, stand the test of time, and between the staging of the gags and Reiner's direction, there's no way you don't feel the phantom pain of seeing Paul Sheldon's ankle take that cracking shot with Annie's sledgehammer. It's probably one of the least intricate special effect in all of horror cinema but it's up there as the most effective.

Bates would go on to star in another King adaptation, Dolores Claiborne—one every bit as good as Misery (and my all-time favorite King-penned movie) but not nearly as celebrated—and while her take on another murderous madam was just as powerful, it was still no Annie Wilkes.

THE BLAND


When Kino announced their 2015 Blu-ray release for Needful Things, collectors everywhere immediately demanded it include the long sought-after 187-minute cut that has never been available on any physical format, but was often broadcast on television during the late 90s. If you've read even a handful of King's most celebrated novels, at least one of them was probably well over a thousand pages. King has been called many things, and certainly indulgent among them, but when these certain intimidating novels include The Stand (miniseries review here) and IT (reviews of the two-volume adaptation here and here), then more power to him. Needful Things is one of those brick-girth but excellent books, weighing in at 700 pages, so you can imagine a two hour edit doesn't exactly cover the multiple subplots that were originally included in the novel, or the subsequent extended cut. Sadly, despite Kino's best intentions, that longer cut could not be secured. (In keeping with unnecessarily complicated American copyright law, rights to the elongated television version reside entirely with another studio—likely Warner Bros., who own a lion's share of King's film and television adaptations, and who are infamous for not licensing their material to any secondary distributors.)

Having said that, and when taken at face value only for what it is as opposed to what inspired it, Needful Things is an entertaining, well-acted and surprisingly trashy good time with a varied but impressive cast that the finished product ultimately doesn't deserve. Max von Sydow is having more fun hamming it up than anyone else in the cast, except maybe for the tremendous J.T. Walsh, whose first appearance has him literally chomping on an unlit cigar. Von Sydow's charming, yellow-teethed Leland Gaunt is flamboyantly and shamelessly evil, and the dialogue that slithers out of his mouth borders on revealing a more...let's call it satanic identity. Ed Harris is also on hand providing one of his better performance (in a long career of excellent ones), playing the role of Sheriff Alan Pangborn, one of the many reoccurring characters in what King has called his "Castle Rock" series. (Michael Rooker of The Walking Dead and Scott Glenn of The Silence of the Lambs played the character in George Romero's adaptation, The Dark Half, and the first season of Hulu's Castle Rock, respectively.) Though there are multiple subplots involving certain townspeople's interactions and transactions within Gaunt's Needful Things store, Pangborn is the connective tissue that unites their ensuing conflicts and provides a backbone for the story. His last-act monologue about greed and hate rivals Bill Pullman's rousing speech from Independence Day in terms of how utter cheese can still manage to sound cinematically satisfying.

It's not often that a great cast can come together to overcome a weak presentation, but that's exactly what occurs with Needful Things. Strong performances without a single weak one to sully the bunch, along with a strong searing score by Patrick Doyle, elevate a presentation harmed but not deadened by its shortened running time.

Needful Things ranks somewhere in the middle of the Stephen King adaptation pantheon. It's no Stand by Me or The Shining, but it's certainly no Dreamcatcher. Two hours of screen time harvested from seven hundred pages of material still manages to provide a reasonable amount of entertainment, despite many more characters, their motivations, and their subplots being left on the cutting room floor. Here's hoping that the white whale of the extended cut one day makes it to video, or even better, the novel is revisited for a second pass by a premium cable channel and turned into a limited series. 

THE UGLY


Did you know there are eleven Children of the Corns?

ELEVEN!

The latest was 2020's Children of the Corn, a prequel written and directed by Equilibrium's Kurt Wimmer, which was both shot in Australia and released in select theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And people WENT TO SEE IT

Children of the Corn ELEVEN

During a PANDEMIC.

For a good stretch of time, Dimension Films held the rights to the series and were responsible for seven direct-to-video sequels until the Weinstein scandal bankrupted their genre-based distribution arm and Lionsgate absorbed their library. Before that happened, they'd spent years trying to do a "proper" remake, but for some reason could never crack the definitive take on a story about murderous kids worshipping a corn god. (A remake was made for television, directed by the producer of the original, which by all accounts is one of the worst in the series, and who by all accounts was a real son of a bitch on set.)

The general understanding of long-running horror franchises is this: once there are enough sequels or remakes weighing down the series, the original is then looked at and proclaimed to be “the only good one” or “the best” by default. This is true with Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is arguably true with Hellraiser. This is not at all true with Children of the Corn, because in spite of all the sequels that hit video store shelves over the years and plumbed the depths of stupidity, the original is still basically very stupid. The aforementioned logline — murderous kids worshipping a corn god — still applies, and if you're one of those people who disses the sequels while praising the original, you're really not doing yourself any favors as they're all equally pedestrian. (Having said that, I've always admittedly been taken with Children of the Corn 7: Revelation, which is more of a moody and abstract experimental piece than a proper Children of the Corn sequel, and as you watch, you can sense it's one of those situations where Dimension Films purchased an original script and crammed some corn into it, which was along the same lines of their philosophy with the Hellraiser franchise while they still owned it — cramming in Pinhead, that is, not corn.) And as you watch full scenes of Linda Hamilton singing and dancing in a hotel room, or R.G. Armstrong wandering around his desolate garage for an eternity looking for creepy kids, you will know beyond a doubt that this feature-length film is based only on a short story. A very short story.

Even aesthetically, Children of the Corn is not an attractive film to look at, existing in that mid-'80s landscape where everything is blown out and soft, such as the opening diner massacre or when Armstrong makes his appearance as — you guessed it — an irascible old man. The movie doesn't contain any kind of directorial flair from Fritz Kiersch at all, and it probably won't surprise you to hear his body of work is rather limited, with Children of the Corn being the title to carry the most recognition. 

The most notable thing about Children of the Corn is its inclusion of a lot of familiar faces who would then go on to immediately appear in much more notable genre films: Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, Robby Kiger in The Monster Squad, John Philbin in The Return of the Living Dead, even Courtney Gains in The ‘Burbs. (This DTV series would also attract a lot of famous actors before they were famous. Chief among them are Charlize Theron in Children of the Corn 3: Urban Harvest, Naomi Watts in Children of the Corn 4: The Gathering, and Eva Mendez in Children of the Corn 5: Fields of Terror. The series would, also, and sadly, attract actors after they were famous, like Nancy Allen and Stacy Keach in Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return, Michael Ironside in Children of the Corn 7: Revelations, Billy Drago in Children of the Corn 8: Genesis, and Clu Gulagher in Children of the Corn 9: Runaway. They must love corn!)

Despite my detailed slandering, I'll still acknowledge that Children of the Corn must have its fans, due to its longevity and it's very long sequel roster, so if you're one of them, don’t be a cornball—embrace your corn love. You’ll feel corny if you don’t. Don’t forget the popcorn, okay? (Corn.)

May 19, 2021

ATOMIC BLONDE (2016)

When the trailer for John Wick was released, no one expected much. It didn’t particularly sell that film in the way it deserved to be sold, focusing more on the dog and goofy carnage rather than the exceptional choreography and the clever world building. I was in from the start because Keanu—I’ll watch him in anything (I even somehow sat through Knock Knock)—but I wasn’t expecting the well made, sincere, and very fun film that John Wick was.

Its two directors, former stunt men Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, soon split off in diverging paths: Stahelski committed to John Wick: Chapter 2 and Leitch to Atomic Blonde. If there was ever any doubt that one director was the secret weapon of John Wick's success, John Wick: Chapter 2 was step one in dispelling that notion. Atomic Blonde is step two.

Atomic Blonde has been meticulously designed and Leitch proves he can absolutely hold his own as a director working solo. Despite how it was marketed, it’s not the female response to John Wick, instead taking its page from paranoid spy thrillers of the ‘70s but reinvented with the neon-loving flamboyance of Nicolas Winding Refn. David Leitch directing Confessions of a Dangerous Mind instead of George Clooney offers a pretty broad but helpful means of warning the audience what kind of film they’ll be getting. Don’t get me wrong, Atomic Blonde does have a handful of extremely impressive action scenes on display—one in particular is presented in the form of a minutes-long unbroken take and rivals anything seen in either John Wick flick—but the film is more interested in cloak-and-dagger espionage, double- and triple-crosses, political Cold War unrest, and hewing at least a little closer to reality by presenting Lorraine Broughton as a bad-ass but entirely human and fallible character. Even after rolling down a hundred concrete steps, John Wick can get up and have a drink. Broughton doesn’t bounce back so quick—her body, which Theron isn’t shy about showing off, is her personal roadmap of pain.

And speaking of Broughton, between the obvious Mad Max: Fury Road and now Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron is having a grand old time kicking everyone’s asses. On top of looking good while she’s doing it, she excels at it. She looks well suited to this kind of material, and even when she engages in the most painful of action set pieces, it’s evident she’s having the most fun out of everyone. Atomic Blonde tries to strike a similar tone to the Craig era of the Bond franchise by injecting a cheeky sense of fun into an otherwise serious story, but where Bond’s generally light tone was more conducive to that kind of balancing act, Atomic Blonde can be very dark at times, and also violent, even grisly, so when the film opens with a John Wick-ish chase scene set to an iteration of Blue Monday, but later on a minor character is violently beaten in the face with a skateboard, Atomic Blonde can seem very tonally confused. Despite that, it’s extremely well made, and all the actors commit, obviously including Theron. It’s still undecided if Atomic Blonde, based on the graphic novel Atomic Blonde: The Coldest City by Antony Johnston, will birth a second franchise for her, but it’s certainly worthy of one.

May 17, 2021

CUB (2015)

If you've ever wondered how Friday the 13th: Part 2 would have looked had they maintained Jason as the new killer of the series, but preserved the age (and even look) as he'd appeared in the maybe/maybe not dream sequence of the original's ending, Cub might just be what you envision right down to the makeshift mas). It is, after all, about a group of young people who venture into the whispered-about woods, trade tall tales of "the werewolf" (called Kai) who is said to stalk the grounds where they have chosen to camp, and kill whomever dares trespass into his home. Basic skeleton aside, and much respect to the beloved Friday the 13th franchise, Cub takes a concept used dozens of times before and somehow manages to sidestep all preconceived notions and present a story that's well realized, well executed, and even well acted.

Experienced first-hand through the eyes of Sam (Maurice Luijten), a boy with an ambiguous backstory that remains mostly unexplained, but on which enough light is shed that the audience knows something went pretty bad in his life, Cub is boy-who-cried wolf in design, in that his questionable history makes him an unreliable narrator. Simply put, after the scout leaders tell tales of Kai the Werewolf, and Sam subsequently claims to have seen that same monster, no one believes him, including scout leaders Kris (Titus De Voogdt) and Peter (Stef Aearts). Because of this, Sam takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious Kai and determine just who - or what - this figure is he sees darting in between trees and pillaging items of use from the sleeping scouts during the night. What soon occurs is an untrustworthy bond and a surprising revelation of sorts that puts Sam instantly in danger - along with everyone else in camp.

One of Cub's best aspects is, no bullshit, its emphasis on real characters, which isn't to say that everyone is provided with overwhelming backstories; instead, it's more that each character is provided with and exudes enough depth that it's easy to determine the kinds of relationships they share on screen and, at times, makes it difficult for the audience to know how they should care about each character. The best example of this is the character of Kris (aka Baloo): a more typical film would have chosen to make his character flat-out unlikeable from beginning to end, but Cub plays it differently; sometimes the film eagerly paints him as a prick, but other times, in quieter moments, the audience gets a glimpse of what he's actually like and they begin to warm up to him. Sam puts him off - it has to do with that ambiguous backstory that's never explained - and it's this slight fear and hesitation of him that makes Kris so conflicted. Though Cub plays as a Friday the 13th homage, with a bit of Haute Tension thrown in, but not in the way you immediately suspect, it avoids the typical broad strokes character archetypes on which that series and others of its kind have relied for years (the guiltiest being the abhorrent remake).

As might be expected, Cub makes excellent use of its wilderness environment. Ambience of the great outdoors is in full use - buzzing insects, creaking trees, the snapping campfire. Likewise, quiet is used to great effect, especially when it comes to Kai's rattling, mantis-like breathing, which soon becomes an ominous and reoccurring presence. The best component of all is the retro synth-based musical score by Steve Moore, who once again channels John Carpenter as he did for another superb horror offering, The Guest.

Where Cub may lack in its originality, it makes up for with its assured direction, its across-the-board solid ensemble of actors, its unrelenting violence, and most important, its glee at wallowing in gray eras - both in its storied ambiguities and its look at its characters. Additionally, it almost feels unfair to hit Cub with the dreaded "unoriginal" smackdown, considering it was designed to homage this kind of film from the beginning. Though the official summary erroneously name-drops Lord of the Rings as an influence (it's possible/likely its writer had instead meant Lord of the Flies), and even with its clear Friday the 13th inspirations, it's obvious that Cub's director, Jonas Govaerts, is a horror fan through and through. (One character's ringtone being the main title from Suspiria by Goblin certainly cements this.) When a horror fan makes a film for horror fans, that love and passion for the genre always shines through even the most unoriginal story. Cub's ballsy ending, its willingness to provide you with unpredictable characters, and its unrestrained use of blood and grue makes it a thrilling addition to the horrors of the great outdoors.

Cub is a brutal, vicious, at times funny, ballsy, and unpredictable little slice of horror that proves, if nothing else, it's still possible to set a film at a camp in the woods with a masked killer and wring genuine scares, all while wearing its influences on its sleeve and forging its own identity. 


May 14, 2021

BAYWATCH (2017)

The trend of existing television properties being re-explored for transition to the big screen (and vice versa) continues with no signs of slowing down. Some have been successful (21 Jump Street) and some have not (CHiPs), and, to no one’s surprise, the “some” that haven’t been successful are leading the pack. With so many of these rebooted properties hailing from bygone eras, mostly the ‘80s and ‘90s, what’s getting lost in translation, and what set off those properties so much, is the nostalgia factor. 21 Jump Street was not a good show, even if you loved it as a teen and had the biggest crush on Richard Grieco. To replicate what you loved about it would've been impossible, so producer Jonah Hill and its writers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did the next best thing: reinvigorated the concept of adults infiltrating a local high school to root out crime, but all the while recognizing it was a ludicrous concept, even having their own characters call out this concept and recognizing the meta-ness throughout. It was satire, spoof, and a straight up reboot all at once, and it was massively successful. But the creative trio didn’t stop there: after already doing the impossible, they did the more impossible: made a sequel that’s just as good, smart, and hilarious.

Baywatch is desperate to exist on this same plane. It thinks that by replicating the slow-motion beach run with its cast gorgeously and handsomely displayed in their red bathing suits that reveal or contour to their perfect bodies, but this time having someone fall down, it will be just as clever and meta – the beach run, which is old, but then someone falls, which is new. Baywatch: The Movie is like the old thing, but it’s also this new thing, which is stupid on purpose. I mean, falling down is funny, right?

Baywatch hails from the Farrelly Brothers school of comedy philosophy: crude is funny – the cruder, the better. No one looks back on the Baywatch series and considers it any kind of high-art entertainment. Even using the word “art” in the same sentence as “Baywatch” feels really slimy. But at least it had an identity – good or bad as that is. (The less said about Baywatch Nights, a quasi-Baywatch meets The X-Files, the better.) Baywatch: The Movie doesn’t have an identity. With a script by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, who’d previously explored pre-existing properties to – no bullshit – better results with Freddy vs. Jason, Baywatch is bits and pieces and cameos from the original series (including an appearance from Pamela Anderson, who is given not a single line of dialogue) attempting to exist in a broad Animal House-like atmosphere. Among the incessant f-bombs and high school locker room dialogue are too-long scenes of painful back-and-forth diatribes or gutter-dwelling moments like the one where a character’s erection gets caught in a beach chair, to which the film dedicates a maddening amount of time and which couldn’t be unfunnier if tried. This approach doesn’t just not work but it feels desperate and forced, almost knowing that it doesn’t have enough substance from which to mine real, smart comedy. (The only other way to have re-explored Baywatch, and which perhaps would have been the better approach, would have been as a straight-faced comedy.)

Personally, I love The Rock. He’s an extremely likable, charismatic, and decent seeming guy. But he’s yet to wrangle himself a film that’s worthy of his talents as a performer. Sure, he’s found success with the Cars Go Fast series, and that’s great considering they prove to be billion dollar endeavors, but the guy who was pre-sold to us all as the next Arnold Schwarzenegger (their passing-by scene in The Rundown where Arnold winks and tells him “good luck” wasn’t just a random joke but a spiritual passing of the torch) has yet to forge the same kind of path. (Dude even starred in the Rampage movie…I mean, come on.) In Baywatch, he’s wasted, forced to curb his appeal as a comedic actor and play the straight man against his wild and crazy lifeguard staff, which includes Zac Efron whom we can at least praise for being in something way, way better than the despicable anti-comedy Dirty Grandpa.

Ultimately, Baywatch doesn’t even have enough faith in the show’s original concept to set the action at the beach and have a conflict revolve around the beach, instead relying on a tired drug-distribution business that lifeguards, ordinarily, would have nothing to do with. It’s very by-the-numbers, derivative of previous comedies better able to rely on raunchy dialogue while still having heart, but worst of all, simply not funny. Literally the only thing it has going for it is several scenes of Alexandra Daddario in a bathing suit. I know it's 2021 and I'm not supposed to say things like that anymore but a truth is a truth.

Did the Baywatch legacy deserve better? Probably not. But audiences at least deserved a better time out at the multiplex. Though he’s gone back to this well several times already, picture a Will Ferrell-led Baywatch film which sees him and his doughy body stepping into the Mitch Buchannon role – him and his loyal band of miscreants – while borrowing absurd plots from the show’s original run (killer crocodile, anyone?) and playing it all entirely straight. That right there, though perhaps overdone, sounds more appealing than dick jokes and fall-downs.

May 12, 2021

BØRNING (2014)

The car chase has been part of the action genre since nearly its inception. Names like Bill Hickman, who oversaw the car stunts in legendary films like The French Connection and Bullitt, and more appropriately Hal Needham, who remains probably the most famous in the Hollywood Hills for having directed and constructed the stunts of the Cannonball Run and Smoky and the Bandit films, were pioneers in what would soon become a new art.

Like car chases, films are a rush. When expertly constructed and smartly maneuvered, a film can sneak up behind you, take you by surprise, and before you know what hit you, it's already gone, fading into the distance, nothing but a blurry set of taillights disappearing around a curve. Marry them together in a fairly balanced way and you've got the makings of a film that never lets up, whether or not the cars are still in park.

Roy Gundersen (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) likes to go fast, and in doing so, has built himself a family of both honest-to-gosh blood relatives and lifelong like-minded enthusiasts with whom to share his need for speed. While out on a leisurely drive with his very pregnant wife (and at her urging), Roy engages in a street race with local gear head TT (Trond Halbo), and not only loses the race, but loses control of the car, driving it off the road and flipping it on its roof. As a result of the crash, Roy's wife's water breaks so he rushes her to the hospital, where their daughter, Nina, is born sickly and with jaundice. Roy is promptly arrested soon after by Officer Philip Mork (Henrik Mestad), who will make it his mission to see that Roy either curb his street-racing tendencies, or go to prison for it.

Cut to fourteen years later, and Roy is working in an auto-body shop trying to stay out of trouble, when once again he crosses paths with his old rival TT. After a war of words, Roy challenges TT to a race - and not just to a street race, but a cross-country haul-assin' to the North Cape, a distance away of 2,208 kilometers (1,376 miles). Soon, two dozen cars are lining up to take part in an attempt to win the ceremonial $100 pot per racer, and Roy's all ready to go...until his now ex-wife drops fourteen-year-old Nina (Ida Husøy) at the shop, leaving her in his care for the week. With no other choice, Nina accompanies her estranged father on his run across Norway, where, in the midst of car-on-car mayhem, law enforcement outsmartment, and a decades-long rivalry, father and daughter will slowly begin to reconnect after years of silence, all while driving really, really fast.

Present a film about caravans of muscle cars taking to the streets and modern audiences will inevitably think of The Fast and the Furious. Though that's to be expected, Børning owes everything to Hal Needham's legacy, beginning with story construct - a country-wide, every-man-for-himself car race - and continuing with its tone - which begins with car-chase thrills before introducing bouts of loony humor and, when you least expect it, some heart. Watch as Roy's Mustang haphazardly careens down hillsides set to banjo-jangling rockabilly and try not to picture Burt Reynolds or The Dukes of Hazard in their ten gallon hats and their "aw shucks" smiles. With shades of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World thrown in for good measure, Børning presents a collection of characters all taking part in a mad-dash across the Norwegian countryside for their very own reasons. Some are doing it out of pride, some for the rush, and some because they're dying, and it's the last chance for them to experience the beauty of their country.

Børning is, not surprisingly, fast-paced, and is beautifully shot to fully convey the impressiveness of the car stunts on hand, and very little of it relies on CGI to maintain that '70s era feel. But it's also refreshingly character-based, allowing for moments of effective humor and genuine heart. Christiansen's Roy comes dangerously close to veering off the road of redemption but thankfully circles around just in time, and young Ida Husøy as Nina not only charms the pants off her audience, but partakes in a scene involving a gas station sandwich that will break your heart. One cinematic device perhaps more overused than the car chase is the the estranged parent and child overcoming their years of absence and finding a way to reconnect. Though Børning offers a new environment for its own parent/child reconnect to take place, the audience isn't necessarily seeing something it hasn't already seen countless times before. Despite that, Christiansen and Husøy work very well as the father/daughter dynamic, and even though it may be a well-worn clutch, the audience can't help but get caught up in their new-found bond. There's also a suggested romance between Roy and fellow body-shop worker Sylvia (Jenny Sklavan) that remains a bit too ambiguous, and for most of the film it's barely acknowledged, leaving the audience wondering if their relationship carries any weight beyond the sexual, or if they're supposed to care about their union. Though the ending would suggest a future between them, its potential for further emotional retribution is too little, too late.

Supporting characters offer the same amount of solid work, but the ailing Nybakken (Otto Jesperen) steals every scene in which he appears, milking his illness (the fictional Schreiner's syndrome) for all it's worth, not to mention proffering the biggest laugh of the film. You'll know it when you see it, and it's impossible not to love.

The car chase thing has been done to death, and it's built multi-billion dollar franchises, but in the middle of all the spectacle, something is being left behind. Børning director Hallvard Bræin seems to have figured out just what that is. (He's also turned it into a so-far three-film franchise.) While the engine's roar and the glistening chrome may present an intense and thrilling time at the cinema, it's always going to be more interesting for the audience to learn about - and come to care for - the people behind the wheel.