Feb 26, 2021


I’m a ‘90s kid. I think a lot of us Internet dwellers are. It was during this magical decade where three gigantic pop-culture phenomena TV shows came into prominence; they entertained and captivated audiences, forever contributing strange references and expressions to the lexicon: Seinfeld gave us “master of our domain,” Friends offered “how you doin’?” and The X-Files, well...the one-hour paranormal drama gave us much, much more. It gave us intrigue, mystery, horror, humor, icky monsters, complicated love, and most importantly, it resurrected one of the biggest life lessons which flourished during the cinematic movement of the 1970s: trust no one.

For nine seasons and two feature films, Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) hunted the things that bumped in the dark, kept watching the skies, and slowly fell in love. And during this mostly '90s-set series, I literally grew up watching it all unfold. It was the first "grown up" show I followed with any regularity, and during my formative years, the impact of it all was that much greater. My boyhood peaked during the show's best seasons, and when the realization set in that said boyhood was nearly over and "grown up" things were soon coming, it just so happened to coincide with the series losing its luster. The magic was vanishing both in real life and the land of make believe. It made coming of age a little bit harder, and in a way, made having to say goodbye to the show something to dread, not anticipate with the usual amount of excitement.

1998's feature film The X-Files: Fight The Future was meant to be the first of many theatrical endeavors that were planned to transition the series from the small screen to the big, with the show's fifth season originally meant to be its TV series swan song—a move that would allow time to flesh out the alien mythology in a streamlined story while reaping the benefits of fans anticipating seeing Mulder and Scully reunite in their never-ending quest to find the truth, which, for all intents and purposes, was out there. (Somewhere.)

This didn't happen.

Fox wasn't about to let go of its largest viewership, even if they could have easily collected their X-revenue from the box office instead of TV advertisers, so The X-Files remained on the air far longer than it should have. It stayed on the air for so long that Duchovny (one of the leads) excused himself from the show’s stranglehold during the last couple seasons in an effort to do something—anything—different. This caused several complications, on top of ones previously caused by a show having already satisfied its main conflict several seasons ago. Obviously, a new new conflict would be needed, and in Duchovny’s absence, new characters, which are almost always a sign of a creatively bankrupt show.

After its disappointing finale in 2002, The X-Files, it appeared, had been permanently sealed.

Enter the series' second feature film I Want to Believe six years later, which picked up on our beloved agents in the next stages of their lives: Dr. Dana Scully was now a staff physician at a children’s hospital, and Fox Mulder was now an unemployed and bored as hell recluse treating his home office ceiling like a dartboard. Not nearly as bad as many fans claim it is, nor as good as some well-meaning but misguided articles might have you believe (how you doin’, AV Club?), The X-Files: I Want to Believe resurrected our beloved FBI agents in a way that felt more perfunctory than ceremonial, leapfrogging off a series finale that found them on the run and pursued by the FBI, but lazily neutralizing that conflict by stating, basically, “Good thing the FBI stopped trying to kill us!” The series finale saw attempts on their lives; their first appearances in I Want to Believe found them barely hiding out, with Mulder lazing around his house protected by a single gate, and Scully working as a prominent doctor under her real name, neither of them at all concerned about having a needle shoved into their medullae oblongatae by a man in black.

Still, The X-Files was back—in theaters!—so if their so-called wantedness by the FBI was the creative hurdle to overcome in order for that to happen, fine. And I Want to Believe presented what ultimately would have been an above-average adventure for our duo…had it been pared down and relegated to the small screen. But with it being a feature film, anticipation for something large in scale and teeming with aliens was expected, though not received, so the reception was not great and its box office haul was pitiful. (Note to Fox, who chose to open it one week after The Dark Knight: counter-programming doesn't work against the geek demographic.)

Ordinarily, I Want to Believe would have signaled the end of the franchise. A low-budget sequel produced to test the waters resulted in a resounding “no thanks” from fans, not helped by its marketing campaign which opted to eschew indication of its actual plot and instead drape its trailer in ambiguity that, hopefully, would be surmounted by the return of Mulder and Scully. Fox was banking on audiences saying, “They’re back? I’m in.” And it didn’t work.

Eight years later, and well into the trend of resurrecting established properties for the small screen, the The X-Files returned with mostly pitiful results. While it was an absolute delight to see Fox Mulder and Dana Scully once again calling each other by their surnames, checking in via cell phone, and doing that cool FBI thing where they point flashlights and guns as they charge into dark rooms, unfortunately, Seasons 10 and 11 made the same mistakes as its most immediate predecessor seasons.

To determine the worth of these new episodes, we need look no further than the book-ending episodes of each new season, "My Struggle" Parts 1 through 4.

With the first episode, the introduction of Mulder and Scully felt perfunctory. The first scene with A.D. Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) felt obligatory. Nothing about it felt big. And every moment should have been big. It was The X-Files back on television after fifteen years, people! Tepid second feature film aside, this was a big deal and should have been treated as such. But Duchovny looked bored, appearing as if he’d shown up late on set for the first day of filming without time to slip back into his character (including his wardrobe). Anderson still seemed to be in the process of shedding the cold disassociation with reality her Bedelia Du Maurier had exhibited during her run on the short-lived Hannibal. Neither of them seemed comfortable revisiting their most famous characters—not to mention the arduously stupid dialogue with which series creator Chris Carter had saddled them.

The opening episode is in such a hurry that it hits the ground running but doesn't know what to do when it lands. There's so much to do, and so little time in which to do it—not just in the 45 minutes of an episode, but in the six episodes of the new season. (What first sounded like a good idea—the six-episode thing—became a handicap. Two mythology episodes and four standalones that found subtle ways to move that mythology along, or reintroduce us to these characters and allow us to see how they've grown and changed, all sounded well and good, but so much it felt like "hurry up and wait" that the wind was taken out of its proverbial sails.) Thematically, where “My Struggle” failed the hardest was in Mulder’s complete willingness to shed his philosophy about the alien invasion that had served as his personal crusade for the entire run of the show, finding him too eager to believe it was all just a distraction from the "real" truth. Fans crucified the episode for this—"My Mulder would never sell out like that"—and they were right to do so.

As to why Carter would introduce such a revelation, there are two possible explanations. One: it was a graceless fumble to concoct yet another alien mythology to order to give The X-Files its purpose, this being the third alien conflict for our duo to investigate. Or two—and one that I’m more inclined to believe, given the endless developments that support it: this was his attempt to attract a whole new audience previously unfamiliar with The X-Files by saying, “What, that? Those previous nine seasons? Forget all that, don’t worry. All you need to know is: Mulder’s got a hard-on for alien conspiracies, Scully’s along for the ride, and they once had an alien baby." And the reasons to support this theory go on, from a statement on the pre-Season 11 greenlight potential for more episodes from Fox entertainment president David Madden where he referred to it as "Season 2” instead, to the befuddling announcement that a series of prequel books geared toward "young adults" are being written to explore Mulder and Scully in their teens—before they joined the FBI or even knew each other.

As for "My Struggle: Part II," Carter borrowed from another of his Fox television series, Millennium, by relying on a conspiratorial group of shadowy men attempting to mass produce a biological contagion as a means to decimate the world's population while leaving a "chosen" few behind. Likely shot following Part 1, Duchovny again looked awkward in the role, and Carter's dialogue—"There's talk all over the Internet!"—again sounded corny and unrealistic. However, not all was lost, and the episode was a remarkable improvement over Part 1. Anderson exhibited a better ease at finding Scully again after so many years, and this episode rode mostly on her shoulders. Carter, who pulled double duty as writer and director, managed to show some directorial flare that bordered on damn near cinematic (speed-ramping fight scenes notwithstanding). Devotees of the series might have felt a rush at certain moments—the returning Monica Reyes' (Annabeth Gish) phone call to Scully, for instance, or, finally, a significant amount of screen time for C.G.B. Spender (William B. Davis)—but they weren't enough to sail this episode, and by proxy the season, through to the finish line.

As for Season 11's mythology-"concluding" episodes, Chris Carter seems to have pursued a purposely dialed-down resolution to the Mulder vs. Cancer Man conflict, which became an organic backbone of the series throughout its run. After being hilariously and stupidly destroyed by a tomahawk missile fired directly into his face following the first ending to The X-Files waaay back in Season 9, Spender not only survived with some minor dents to the fender but he's still as dastardly as ever. But instead of the big, flashy, Hollywood ending Carter tried the first time, now, things for Spender ended with a whimper...and with a single gunshot. He survived a missile to the brain, but Mulder's gun finally does the trick, I guess, castrating this bigger than life conflict between them, relegating Spender to a simple monster of the week, as if he had never been hugely significant to Mulder's ongoing struggles with who he is and the real truth he's seeking.

Speaking of monsters, the new series' "monster of the week" episodes all did admirable jobs of trying to find that careful balance between satisfying the old fans, intriguing the new ones, and presenting episodes that appealed to the many diverse sensibilities of its audience. Different fans of old-school X-Files loved the different approaches to the episodes: the horrific, the silly, the pensive and quiet, and the mythological—all in equal measures. In order to give every faction their due, and within the confines of a six-episode season, they did as well as they could have. The problem, however, wasn’t the tone, but the actual writing. If nothing else, Season 10 has the dubious honor of unleashing upon its fanbase probably one of the worst—if not the worst—episode of the show’s existence. (Do I even have to say “Babylon”? Couldn’t you all have assumed that?)

Line-dancing! Gangsta rings! Cameos from dead dorks! What is happening! 

Amidst all of these disappointments, one stood head and shoulders above the rest. It wasn't the lackadaisical performances, the questionable story choices, and the wildly uneven tone. It's that with Season 10, The X-Files lost its intelligence. It sacrificed subtlety to satisfy how apparently angry with and saddened by his country Chris Carter has grown. What made the original run of The X-Files so thrilling and beloved was how American it was. And I don't mean Reagan's America, but the real America—history book America. The original series was socially relevant and mindfully political because it pertained to a certain bygone era of America's modern history, off which the show created a lot of mystique. The most political it ever got was by insinuating that J. Edgar Hoover had once been part of the conspiracies that ran rampant—and by implication, President Nixon, easily roping in that tangible sense of paranoia. This specificity to an era of American history is always going to be relevant because that aspect is so ingrained in/with American culture. It's vital to our culture in the same way baseball is our national pastime. There's no explaining why—it just is. This is what gives The X-Files strength and purpose: the paranoia of the blue-collar nobody attempting to circumvent the trials and tribulations of everyday life in order to find the truth. Is there a conspiracy? If so, who's in on it? Who can you trust? How high does it go? Equal parts The Manchurian Candidate, All the President's Men, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, The X-Files endeavored to embody that same spirit—American stories about American conflicts featuring American men and women standing up against invading threats. They were about us fighting corruption at the very top.

Carter's new X-Files was no longer interested in subtlety. Far more interested in broad strokes and empty meaningless gestures about how we can improve as a people (talking and love can fight terrorism! homelessness is bad; someone should do something!), the new X-Files didn’t skewer American culture as much as focus on the things that have hindered that culture. It's Carter's insistence on making the series socially relevant that forced it to stand out like a sore thumb when compared to everything that’s come before. With the introduction of right-wing TV host Tad O'Malley, Islamic extremism, and references to drones, constant surveillance, the Iraq War, anthrax, and Edward Snowden, it's tried so hard to feel current that it somehow already felt dated by the end of the episode. One day there will come a time when religious extremism and ISIS and suicide bombings become a thing that just was. Down the road, new fans will discover the show, and these new episodes, and think, "Was this ever part of your culture?" But the original conflicts that really gave The X-Files its power—Watergate, the JFK assassination, Roswell—aren't just pages of our history, but shapers of our culture. They're never going to dissipate, and they exemplify what Fox Mulder is trying to do: expose the shadowy government officials at the highest levels for what they are and prove to the American people they've been lied to.

Even if we want to take a step back from all the pseudo-philosophizing and examine the show for nothing more than a piece of entertainment, the rebirth still existed on shaky ground. Carter wasn’t able to overcome the recognition that The X-Files achieved pop-culture status. Even people who never watched a single episode in their lives know the names Mulder and Scully. They know "trust no one." And they know, without ever having seen a frame, that Mulder and Scully totally wanted to do it to each other. Carter was so aware of this pop-culture status that he seemed unable to refrain from elbowing his audience in the side, in every episode, to remind them of this. Too aware of its own legacy to just be a show, it tried to be a show at the same time it was reminding people, "Hey, this was a show before it was a show!" Scenes of Mulder being confused by iPhones are played for laughs, oddly suggesting that following I Want to Believe, he lived in a closet while culture continued to advance without him. The "mini" versions of our characters that appear in "Babylon"—down to Lauren Ambrose's red hair and her ultra-cynicism—have all the subtlety of a fireworks factory exploding. And the list goes on and on.

Different intellectual properties have been explored on television in various ways, whether they be the resurrection of previous series or film properties being explored in inventive reboots. But none of them ever felt the need to remind their audiences, "Hey, we've done this already." It caused The X-Files' return to feel obligatory, exhibiting a seeming "Oh, is it our turn?" mentality. As if they didn’t really want to be back.

And that sucks.

Though Seasons 10 and 11 seem to be the final word on The X-Files in terms of television (and Anderson, who has been enjoying one celebrated role after another since then, has made it very clear she wouldn’t do another season), Carter has been claiming for years that he's written a film script for The X-Files 3, and his comments on that script suggest the events of these new seasons don't really complicate what he's already concocted. The problem is he already had a long break between Season 9 and I Want to Believe, and then another long break between that and Season 10, to focus on the story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. Hence why Season 11 didn't dare much better.

If Chris Carter loves The X-Files as much as I believe he does, the best thing he can do for it is close the lid of his laptop and hand over all future writing responsibilities to someone else – either to the staff he’s assembled over the years which includes Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, or to the dreaded ‘new class’ of writers who could take that concept of The X-Files and re-create it as something new while giving it a clean slate.

Regardless of what form in which it returns, The X-Files could be great again. After seeing how low it can go, any eventual returns would have to serve as some kind of marginal improvement. Or maybe that's the fan boy in me holding out hope that such a thing is possible. Maybe, at this stage, after so many disappointing seasons, it's simply not possible.

But, let's just say I want to believe it is.

Feb 24, 2021


Michael Corrente's adaptation of David Mamet's 1975 play of the same name was released four years following James Foley's own searing Mamet adaptation, Glengarry Glen Ross, which likely remains the quintessential Mamet play realized for the screen. Though the two films retain quite a bit of similarity, mostly having to do with the state of the human soul and relationship when corrupted by the poisons of capitalistic schemes - either unethical or downright illegal - American Buffalo is a much more intimate affair, relegating the number of characters to a mere three (and not just on-screen at one time, but in the entire film). And it wouldn't really be unfair to these characters to describe them as scumbags, because they kind of are. Donny (Denis Franz) is the pawnshop owner with the "brains" to concoct the potential robbery, Bobby (Sean Nelson) is his quite young but willing accomplice, and Teach (Dustin Hoffman) is the scummiest of them all, inserting himself into the scheme at the expense of Bobby's involvement. The plot is a simple one: to rob a recent customer of Donny's pawn shop - of the rare American buffalo nickel, and the dozens of other rare coins Donny assumes the man to have in his possession.

While it's only felt like somewhat recently - perhaps with the advent of The Sopranos - that never before have there been so many prominent films and television shows told from the point of view from the quite flawed and even villainous main character, this has actually been a prominent device in storytelling devices for a while now, going back as far as The Godfather and likely even farther back into cinema history. Now more than ever it seems that audiences are rooting for the bad guy, or the bad motorcycle club, or the bad meth-cooker/chemistry teacher - people that our consciences tell us are not to be sympathized with, but yet with whom we do so, anyway. What the human mind does with law-breaking characters is reset our expectations. To make those characters relatable, we reevaluate human morality; because it's the human brain's instinct to compartmentalize, we compare ourselves against those being presented to us, and we all draw our own lines as to which of these characters goes too far. These three men - well, two men and one boy - are all complicit in their hackneyed plot to rob a man of at least one rare coin (the value of which doesn't seem to exceed $500 - a lousy goal when split among three participants), as well as many other theoretical coins that Donny can't even confirm the man possesses. These men all choose to take part in illegality, and all for their own reasons - Donny out of a sense of retribution, Bobby out of legitimate need, and Teach out of pride and misplaced anger. On the surface, all three men are guilty, but it's the strength of Mamet's script and Corrente's direction that the audience comes away feeling a certain way about each of our heist men. Donny may be the mastermind, and the fact that he's soliciting the involvement of a young kid too stupid to think for himself initially paints him as the worst of the three, but the more Teach manipulates Donny in a bevy of ways - and all, of course, which benefit Teach to some degree -  and after every one of his profane tirades erupts within the small tinny walls of Donny's pawnshop, our dislike for Donny decreases, and it's all placed on Teach. But then as we're approaching the third act and the two men being throwing shadows of doubt on Bobby's behavior, as he comes and goes to the pawnshop, bringing with him suspicious behavior and eyes that stay firmly planted on the floor, that audience perception changes sides yet again. Each of the men we'd previously condemned in our minds suddenly had our sympathy and our support. ("Oh no, they'll be caught!" etc.) Yes, all three are complicit, but it's their personalities that determine which character gets our sympathies, and which do not, and that's a pretty ballsy manipulation to commit upon your audience.

Thomas Newman's funkified and quirky score is used only very intermittently, and with the majority of the film taking place inside an old pawn shop, the audio environment is very limited and very basic. This is to be completely understood, given that American Buffalo is essentially a story written for the stage that happens to be before cameras. Probably the best use of scripted dialogue comes during the third act in which the dynamic between our characters change. The script starts off rapid fire between Donny and Teach, the latter who spits a record number of dialogue, peppered with all kinds of colorful 'fuck' uses, before the audience can even tell where the plot is headed. But once an ugly confrontation occurs, the dialogue slows, slooows, sloooows down, almost painstakingly so, instead of their rambunctious dialogue filling the silence, it's the oncoming thunderstorm soaking the entire world outside. It's in the long silences between our character's exchanges that the thunder and rain becomes increasingly prominent, and it sounds subtly fantastic.

David Mamet is an interesting and quirky individual, and both of those straits show through in his writing. If you've seen at least one of his plays or subsequent film adaptations, his style and his prose will always be recognizable. His involvement in some more higher-profile films might come as a surprise to those who assumed the man always stayed under the radar - (He wrote The Edge! Yeah, the killer bear movie!) - but there is no mistaking a David Mamet screenplay. He's one of the most unique and talented voices working today (though he would tell you there is no such thing as talent - only perseverance); he's uncompromising, furious, and both fascinated by and disgusted with the human condition. American Buffalo is a David Mamet vehicle through and through.

Feb 22, 2021


1981’s The Evil Dead conjures incorrect associations. A film made by talented but inexperienced kids was meant to be "the ultimate experience in grueling terror," but its inherent hokiness due to its lack of budget, unknown and untested actors, and filmmakers learning as they went soon became mistaken for intended comedy. And that changed everything.

The Evil Dead, despite what fans may think, was never meant to be funny. And it was during its initial screenings that its creators saw the audiences laughing at scenes which weren't meant for laughs and thought, "uh oh, we better start making them laugh on purpose." That decision would change the direction of all future installments (and, much further down the road, television series). 

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn would feature laughing mule heads, rocket-propelled eyeballs, and disembodied hands fighting their former bodies. Audiences loved it. They couldn't get enough of the new Three Stooges-inspired slapstick and gross-out humor. And its cult appeal led to a major studio getting behind what began as Evil Dead III, and then The Medieval Dead (still the best title), and finally Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness

With an actual budget on which to depend, the universe of The Evil Dead exploded, throwing time travel, dripping castles, and armies of skeletons into the mix. Tree rape was exchanged for zippy, kid-friendly one-liners. Melting faces and bodily dismemberment were swapped out for shrieking witch faces. Bruce Campbell's Ash went from being the horror-film equivalent of Die Hard's John McClane to that version of Bruce Willis who was recently thrown out of a Rite Aid for refusing to wear a face mask. (If you’re reading this in the year 2050 or something, Google “COVID-19” to see what the hell I’m talking about). Through being assaulted by his demon-possessed friends and a living woods, he transformed from hapless hero being tossed through bookshelves into a cocky, womanizing, and sometimes unlikable bad-ass...while still being tossed through bookshelves. Audiences grew to love this version of Ash, and that was/is their right. This iteration has come to define what the brand of The Evil Dead and its main hero means to the masses. Stop someone on the street and say, "Give me some sugar, baby!" and they'll say "Army of Darkness!" Stop that same person on the street and say "Tree rape!" and they'll call the cops.

This change from outright horror to a comedy/horror hybrid (leaning heavily on the former) doesn't always work and causes Army of Darkness to come off a little tone deaf. And from the second-act sequence beginning with Ash being victimized by a handful of little Ashes, ending with the sequence where he shoots Evil Ash point blank in the face, Army of Darkness becomes insufferable. But then the stop-motion skeletons show up and save the day - and the film.

Army of Darkness, the film, is what it is. It boasts legions of worshipers eager to quote it at every turn and it will be one of the forever-remembered titles of the horror genre. Bruce Campbell is totally within his element, offering an admittedly fun if occasionally overbearing performance and reinforcing why audiences love the character of Ashley J. Williams in the first place. Those like me who are indifferent toward Army of Darkness are likely in the minority. Likely the most popular cult title of all time next to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this romp against the Deadites has long been a fan favorite, and no amount of curmudgeonly dismissal is ever going to change that. 

Just hide all the bookshelves.

Feb 19, 2021


Make a haunted house movie and I’m there. I can’t help it. Straight horror, horror/comedy; traditional or found footage. If it’s got ghosts, it’s got me. Put on that bed sheet, poke some holes, and scream at me. That’s all I want, and because of this I can be pretty forgiving. But the worst thing you can do — even worse than making a bad horror film — is making a boring one.

And that’s what Darkness Rising is: boring. And bland.

Even if it existed in a barren landscape void of any films about ghosts or the paranormal, Darkness Rising would still be pretty uninspired, but it’s kind of a shame that James Wan had to come along and reinvigorate the haunted house subgenre with his Insidious and The Conjuring series — films that weren’t just well made but legitimately frightening. Other lesser known filmmakers have followed in his footsteps: Mike Flanagan’s OculusOuija: Origin of Evil, and his masterful Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House, as well as André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, are further examples of made by filmmakers who get and respect the genre. It’s been a good era for the ghost, and as such, when a minor movement finds prominence in the horror genre, other filmmakers are eager to throw down their hand and ride those coattails.

That can only explain why Darkness Rising is now a thing.

Darkness Rising is every haunted house movie, from the creepy-eyed demons to the fantastical events that prevent our (extremely irritating) characters from leaving that stupid house. The only positive to come out of this mess is a small appearance by Ted Raimi, who even in a very small part manages to show off some decent dramatic chops, doing much of the heavy lifting with his craggy face and soulful eyes. I’m serious! Good for you, Ted Raimi!

IFC Midnight has had a good run lately with its ghost-laden acquisitions: the aforementioned Autopsy of Jane Doe, A Dark Song, and The Devil’s Candy, etc. Darkness Rising doesn’t rank in comparison and is best forgotten — and it absolutely will be before the credits even roll.

Feb 17, 2021

FREAKY (2020)

The slasher sub-genre has been around for almost as long as the horror genre itself, with elements found as far back as 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Ever since then, crops of filmmakers have been content to do one of two things with the slasher film: present a dependable, uncomplicated tale that relies on its simplistic foundations, or concoct a clever take on the concept that spins the sub-genre on its head. Halloween (1978) and Scream (1996) are two perfect examples of this dichotomy. The first took all the slasher elements that had existed at that time and finally planted them into an environment that most audiences could relate to – suburbia – whereas Scream, which gleefully embraced its Halloween inspirations, masterfully took all the elements that had existed by that time and blessed its characters with a working knowledge of how the sub-genre worked, theoretically making them savvier in the face of danger. Following its release, Scream was foretold to be the harbinger of the slasher flick’s ultimate demise. Because a film had come along that called out the tropes and pitfalls of the sub-genre, critics said there would be no going back to standard slasher films as we knew them. Thankfully, filmmakers went back anyway (and Scream wasn’t even the first to go full meta – see 1991’s, albeit terrible, There’s Nothing Out There), and though this new generation of slasher fodder may have been savvier, they still ultimately fell victim to the same pitfalls as before. Like many of their masked villains, slasher films had proven they will never truly die, with most of their future offerings eagerly going back to their roots of simplicity and watered-down mythology. (Ironically, enter 2018’s Halloween.)

Last year’s Freaky, directed by Happy Death Day’s Christopher Landon, is the latest twist on a well-worn concept, taking both its concept and its namesake from, of all things, Disney’s family-friendly Freaky Friday films (the remake which stars, ironically, Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis, and which is GREAT – YEAH, I SAID IT.). Landon’s dedication to the genre is well established by now, having written most of the Paranormal Activity sequels along with another similarly quirky horror-comedy, Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse (2015); those stationary-camera haunted condo movies aside, his body of work proves he understands the workable balance between horror and comedy, with his scripts never coming down too prominently on one side versus the other. Freaky, which is brimming with homages to slasher films of old, clearly takes its cues from the aforementioned Scream and Halloween, while also throwing in some Evil Dead, The Shining, and Friday the 13th for good measure. (Enjoy the homage to that latter title while it lasts, too, because thanks to all the lawsuits the series is currently saturated with, Freaky may very well be the final slasher flick to show you the below words on a movie screen…)

Though Freaky isn’t as innovative as something like Scream or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, its concept is a clever one, mashing up two utterly disparate genres to create what amounts to a solid, entertaining, bloody, funny, and genuinely touching contribution to the horror-comedy sub-genre…and believe me, that ain’t easy – just ask…well, most horror-comedies. Freaky also offers just enough buyable aspects to its plot that the circumstances under which high school teen Millie (Kathryn Newton, Supernatural) and the town of Blissfield’s very own mass murderer, the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) end up switching bodies never gets too mired in its own mythology to the point where the plot overcomplicates itself. Once the body-swap happens, Millie, as now played by Vaughn, relies on her two best friends, Nyla (the forthcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s Celeste O'Connor, giving off strong Olivia Cooke vibes) and Josh (Misha Osherovich, NOS4A2) to track down the Butcher, re-swap their bodies before the switch becomes permanent, and save the town from the Butcher’s Voorhees-esque massacre. (His mask is one fresh coat of paint and few air holes away from being Jason’s hockey mask.)

By the sheer nature of the story, even though Newton does most of the killing, she’s not given the opportunity to lean into the new personality of her Butcher character as much as Vaughn has to somehow embody a teenage girl dealing with this absurd conflict. To be clear, it’s not a fault of Newton’s performance and it’s a joy to see her exact bloody revenge on all the dicks who made her high school life hell, but one “swap” was always going to be more interesting and entertaining than the other, and with that comes Vaughn’s triumph. Freaky, somehow, offers enough situations for Vaughn to sidestep the surface-level silliness of what he’s doing (and don’t get me wrong – he’s very funny, especially whenever there’s a longshot of him running like “a girl”) to present some honest emotional moments in which Millie can finally communicate, for the first time ever, the pain of losing her father and the angst of struggling to know herself to those closest to her. In those same kinds of absurd movie moments where the audience cries over Tom Hanks and Wilson becoming separated at sea or an aging Elvis slowly dying following a battle with a soul-sucking mummy at a convalescent home, Freaky generates handfuls of moments where the audience is sincerely touched by Millie’s emotional awakening even while wrapped in Vaughn’s serial killer body. (And if you’ve ever wanted to see Vaughn lock lips with a teen boy, well…) Luckily, thanks to Vaughn’s previous work in darker genre stuff, like 1998’s Psycho remake or 1999’s Clay Pigeons, he’s also able to convincingly play a deranged and sinister serial killer, saving his best and bloodiest for his final scenes. It’s the best of both worlds, and he’s never been more fun to watch.

Given that Freaky exists in a post-pronouns world, it’s not unfair to say that audiences might be expecting to drown in the film’s “wokeness” agenda, generated by its body-swapping plot, but except for subtly touching hands with the concepts of gender, gender roles, and cross-sexuality, Freaky never perches itself on a soapbox to offer any heavy messages – not because it failed to, but because that was never its mission statement. The characters weren’t designed to experience alternate perspectives based solely on their new bodies of the opposite sex – it was more so Millie could realize she didn’t have to be wearing the body of a tall imposing man to discover her inner strength, and so the Butcher could realize that prey was much easier to come by when the predator wore an unassuming form…even if it became much harder to kill. This careful balance of silliness and sincere conversation is just as finely tuned as its balance between horror and comedy, making Freaky not just a genre highlight of 2020, but one of the best horror-comedies to come down the pike in quite some time.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Feb 15, 2021

CREED II (2018)

2015’s Creed was a risky move, especially after Rocky creator and caretaker Sylvester Stallone had successfully resurrected his character ten years prior for Rocky Balboa to say goodbye and allow the series to retire with some dignity. As great of an ending as Rocky Balboa proved to be, Creed was an even greater reintroduction of the character to a new generation, finding an organic way to reboot the franchise without stripping it of its identity. And now, Creed’s own sequel has arrived, which exists on a very shaky premise: the son of fighter Apollo Creed versus the son of the fighter who killed him – events which unfold in 1985’s Rocky IV, the corniest sequel in the franchise.

Creed II ranks as the Rocky II of this new franchise – not nearly as good as the original, but good enough to stand on its own two feet and justify its existence. As a whole, the Rocky series maintains not because every film is blemish-free, but because of the series’ spirit, and what it represents. Creed II ably carries forth with that spirit, as Adonis Creed’s (Michael B. Jordan) family grows, causing the fighter to redefine exactly what it is he’s fighting for. Structurally, the events of Creed II’s story feel a little more predictable: you can forecast the various conflicts that will inevitably arise before they actually do. By now, the franchise has a very familiar pattern: dream, train, fight, lose, wallow, thrive, train, and win (or lose). Creed was unique enough to feel like a fresh take on a standard sports movie. Creed II, meanwhile, is certainly well made, but not enough that it overcomes that familiarity.

What’s lacking the most in this entry is the emotional connection the audience shares with its characters. That’s not to say that Creed II lacks heart, because that’s not at all the case — even the worst Rocky sequels had heart — but there’s nothing here that compares to, say, Rocky railing against a boxing commission denying his desire for one last fight, or a training montage that juxtaposes Adonis Creed running down Philly streets with Rocky in a hospital room receiving chemotherapy. (A deleted scene included on the Blu-ray shows Rocky giving a eulogy at the funeral of fellow fighter Spider Rico, whose character dates back to 1976’s Rocky, which would’ve beefed up Creed II’s emotional core considerably.)

Every Rocky entry has done what so few mainstream movies have been able to do: transcend being movies and feel like events. As such, a Rocky movie, and now, a Creed movie, has to feel big. It has to recognize that its audience hasn’t just come for the story, but for the presentation of that story, and they know that said experience demands the inclusion of certain series iconography. The city of Philadelphia, or the front porch of Rocky’s modest row home, or even his crooked fedora—all these little things defined what a Rocky movie was. Director Steven Caple Jr. (a colleague of Creed director Ryan Coogler, who recommended him for the helm after moving on to Black Panther) recognizes this as well, just as we recognize that any Rocky movie has to feel cinematic. As Ivan Drago (a returning Dolph Lundgren) and his fighter son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) stand on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and look on in amusement as passersby take photos with the Rocky statue, or do the famous run up the stairs, Caple is banking on the audience feeling territorial toward Philadelphia, the home of Rocky, the ultimate underdog. Though the level of villainy is far down compared to Rocky IV, we know that the Dragos are essentially the villains, and when the camera pans around to capture them from the back as they look out over the city they hope to dominate, those chills you’re feeling are very real. That’s why we’re here.

As expected by now, Creed II offers an array of excellent performances, from Jordan’s Adonis to Stallone’s weathered Rocky, even to an understated but evocative take on Ivan Drago by Lundgren, who except for Stallone-backed projects like The Expendables franchise has been out of the mainstream limelight for twenty years. The aging action star has made a career playing the hero in direct-to-video action movies, so to see him getting the chance to act instead of perform is a rare treat. Wisely, Creed II uses him sparingly and keeps his dialogue at a minimum (half of which is Russian), maintaining Rocky IV’s mythical qualities of Ivan Drago’s Frankensteinian persona. If a Rocky/Creed fan were to have mockingly predicted the plot of Creed II knowing that Stallone would be writing it, what eventually came to pass wouldn’t have been that far off. (Jokes abound that Creed III will see Adonis fighting the son of Clubber Lang.) But Stallone, who continues to surprise in the franchise he knows better than anyone else, has helped usher in one more respectable entry in the face of a gimmicky plot.

Creed II boasts a very solid, stable, and bright image, and contains the kind of disciplined and specific cinematography essayed in the previous movie, only Caple Jr. embraces the glitz and flashiness of the final throwdown between Adonis and Viktor. Wonderfully complementing this visual component is the musical score by returning Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, who revisits some of his earlier themes (which were a spin on those by original composer Bill Conti) to create a score that is cinematically stirring, but peppered with hip-hop influences in ways that never feel exploitative or commercial.

Creed II is a welcome addition to the series, and, in spite of Stallone’s threat to retire the character again (this time for good), it probably won’t be the last word on Adonis Creed. Here’s hoping that Creed director Ryan Coogler returns to helm the third (and final?) entry and complete his intended trilogy.

Feb 12, 2021

CREED (2015)

Early reaction to the announcement of Creed, described more as a spin-off than a sequel to the long-running Rocky franchise, was understandably cynical. After all, Rocky creator and caretaker Sylvester Stallone had resurrected the character ten years previous, after several entries showcasing diminishing returns, to say goodbye to the most enduring character of his career—and in a final sequel that would hopefully provide some damage control to the inherent silliness the Rocky franchise had accumulated. Rocky Balboa was a fitting end to a character’s thirty year saga which saw the punchy boxer who stole America’s hearts fight from the very bottom to the very top, and then back down again. But above all else, it was just a fine film, with unexpected melancholy, beauty, and that Capra-esque goodness in which the character of Rocky Balboa has been ensconced since the first time he stepped into the ring. A lot of this trepidation following Creed’s announcement was because of its possible undoing of such a satisfying conclusion to one of cinema’s most iconic characters. Fans of the series had long seen just how wrong sequels can go, and because Rocky Balboa felt like lightning, it was unlikely that same kind of lightning would strike twice with another risky entry. 

As the character of Rocky Balboa has done time and time again, we were once again very very surprised by the underdog we never saw coming.

From the duo behind 2013’s wrenching Fruitvale Station, writer/director Ryan Coogler and superstar-in-training Michael B. Jordan, comes the best entry in the Rocky franchise since the 1976 original—one that meets the beauty and drive of Rocky Balboa in every way, but also exceeds it. Creed contains real power, contained in every single piece of construct, from the unexpectedly emotional performances and sequences—including the most poignant and deeply moving training montage yet in a Rocky film—to the non-stop, unbroken fighting scenes in the ring.

Originally sold more as a spin-off—a soft reboot of sorts, which is a move many studios are going for these days, in case you haven’t noticed—fans of the franchise will be relieved to know that Creed is a Rocky movie through and through, despite being the first Rocky film not written and directed by Stallone. Though Jordan’s namesake is the lead character, and Stallone’s boxer-cum-trainer Rocky Balboa has transitioned to supporting role, nothing about Creed is ever so foreign and different that it feels as if Rocky is existing in a strange alternate film universe. If there is any film franchise that has a feeling, it’s Rocky, and if there’s ever been a sequel/reboot/spin-off that so ably captured that same feeling, it’s Creed. Even if Rocky’s story as a boxer looking to prove his worth may have come to a satisfying end, Creed proved that, though his story as the headliner and focus may be done, his life has continued outside of that limelight, and there was still a story to tell—still with conflicts for him to overcome.

One of the most rewarding things about Creed is its ability to surprise. A more-than-spiritual Rocky 7 of sorts, it not only ably beats the sequel curse, but manages to neutralize and embrace the very specific and very silly sequel that has given Creed its main conflict. Rocky IV, aka America: The Movie, has long since been considered one of the more favored Rocky movies—not because it’s good in the same sense that the original was (because ha ha, no way in hell), but because it filtered the spirit of Rocky through a heightened and cartoony conflict and achieved pure lowest-common denominator status. It was a film filled with nonstop training montages, “Eye of the Tiger,” Christmas!, and Dolph Lundgren as a Frankenstein’s monosyllabic monster Soviet boxer Ivan Drago. Rocky IV is iconic, beloved, and very stupid. Which is what makes Creed even more of a surprise. Newer audiences unaware of previous Rocky films, including Rocky IV, might not know that the references made to Johnson’s father, Apollo Creed, dying in the ring, don’t play out in their imaginations the same way they played out on theater screens in 1985. Newer audiences might picture a long, drawn out, gritty, bloody, emotionally wrenching sequence which sees Apollo dying before horrified audiences, but what actually happened—Apollo dancing around on a levitating stage with James Brown and mascots dressed as Uncle Sam, pretty much tiring himself out before he gets in the ring to be instantly killed—is, again, much stupider. That Creed manages to build such a poignant conflict with such emotional weight off such a stupid development in the Rocky series was nothing anyone could have ever seen coming—let alone it being something to celebrate.

And from there the surprises continue: Michael B. Jordan’s intimidating physical form and his dedication to the role, Stallone’s devastating turn as an aged Rocky fighting a battle of his own—in a performance even his most ardent fans didn’t think he was capable of at this point in his career—and most effective, that we can leave a theater as Creed’s closing credits roll on screen, not just having loved what we’d witnessed for the previous two hours, but billowing with that exhilarating reminder of why we love movies in the first place.

For the last ten years, studios have been looking to properties they own in an effort to resurrect them for new audiences. Though many of these attempts have resulted in underwhelming efforts, Warner Bros. continues to prove they are the king at breathing new life into old ideas, resurrecting dormant franchises like BatmanMad Max, and now, Rocky. Creed's success with both critics and audiences ensured that Adonis Johnson and Rocky Balboa would return. But in the same way Creed successfully embodied the Rocky spirit, critics and audiences held out hope that future installments would have the humility to look past the dollar signs and avoid the same mistakes that the elder Rocky franchise had made. 

Feb 8, 2021


Three O’Clock High is one of those broad, high-concept, and innocent teen films that don’t get made very often. Regarding its making, director Phil Joanou was quick to say that he was very aware of John Hughs’ mark on the high school teen comedy and that he very purposely steered the execution of Three O’Clock High in a different and less grounded direction. Despite that (and he does — I’m not about to call him a liar), Three O’Clock High shares the broadness, innocence, and easily communicated conflicts of Hughs’ films.

A bully wants to beat up another student.

That’s it. That’s the conflict. There is no deeper hidden meaning (unless you’re really reaching). Punchee-to-be Jerry Mitchell doesn’t go on a day of self-discovery as he awaits his fate. He’s the same character at the end of the day (okay, perhaps braver) than he was when he first woke up late that morning. One might think this is a shortcoming of Three O’Clock High, but on the contrary: the simplicity is the film’s greatest strength.

It’s also a wonderful product of its time. I don’t think it’s a spoiler alert to say that in this lovable, lighthearted teen comedy that Jerry punches the bully back at the end and wins the day, and that’s what makes it so unique: the message IS “seriously, use violence to solve your problems.”

Even the PRINCIPAL (John P. Ryan, in a rare role where he’s not killing someone in a Cannon film) urges Jerry to punch the bully.


Think that teen-oriented message would ever make the final cut today?

Much of the comedy on display is of the timeless sort, with some gags harking back to the earliest days of Chaplin (the library sequence is one of my new favorite things), and Casey Siemaszko (Back to the Future) plays a very likeable, every-day type of kid who’s just as confused as the audience is as to why Buddy the bully (Richard Tyson, the evil dad from Kindergarten Cop) has singled him out.

Three O’Clock High is just a fun film, and not one that’s well known, likely getting lost in all the adoration of John Hughes’ output. It’s light, easy, and breezy fare, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Not every high school teen flick needs to have kids at detention spilling their guts, tears, and greatest fears. Sometimes they just have to punch the bully and get the car home before Mom and Dad get back from vacation. Take the opportunity to get to know the trials and tribulations of student school store manager Jerry Mitchell and the punch that was heard around the world.

Feb 5, 2021


When it comes to an actress's legacy, I don't think there's ever been anyone as maligned as Jill Ireland. She might even be less popular than Talia Shire (who, if we're being honest, suffered because of the parts she played, not the performances she gave). The real-life spouse of Charles Bronson, Ireland and the celebrated action icon appeared together in sixteen films (seventeen if we count her cameo in Lola), the first being 1968's Villa Rides. Not necessarily one who married an actor and then became an actress, she'd already worked fairly steadily in film and television for more than a decade before meeting Bronson on the set of 1967's The Great Escape. However, out of politeness, it's not commonly discussed that it was through Bronson's stipulation for many of his films that if the studio/director/producer wanted him, they had to have her, too. This was likely a chagrin for said filmmakers, being that, well, Jill Ireland was kind of a lousy actress.

Sure, it's all subjective and it's all just one person's opinion. But, after marrying Bronson in 1968, she made seventeen more films. Fifteen of them were Bronson pics. Their last was 1987's Assassination, considered to be the worst offender of the Bronson/Ireland pairing.

Despite the involvement of both Bronson and Cannon Films, Assassination is a surprisingly light-hearted offering from a pair of collaborators more well known for violent, stark, "adult," and at times even ugly films. Calling it a screwball comedy would be going too far, but there's a definite It Happened One Night vibe, even maintaining the "aristocracy meets working class" aesthetic, but Assassination swaps the snappy dialogue and sexual tension for rocket launchers and a lunatic plot, which sees Bronson's secret service agent single-handedly taking on an unending squad of hitmen bent on taking out the First Lady, who may or may not have been sent by the President himself. (In 1987, this was considered a wacky plot. These days...)

Assassination is oddly dated in certain aspects--beyond the frizzy hair of every female lead, that is. The most glaring example of this is the character played by Jan Gan Boyd, an Asian actress saddled with the hilariously offensive character name Charlie Chang, who spends most of the film begging Bronson to sleep with her. Over and over. In every exchange the characters share on screen, it involves the request that Bronson take her home and give her the ol' heave-ho (which he does). For someone like Bronson, who was probably the only person on Planet Earth to suffer from both superiority and inferiority complexes simultaneously, this attractive woman half his age pleading for sex was likely a machination on behalf of the filmmakers to coax Bronson into signing on to the film. (No joke: Bronson suffered a real-life lack of confidence, to the point where he'd refuse to work with actors who were taller than him.) Take all that, add the press conference scene where a reporter flat-out asks the First Lady if the President was responsible for giving her that black eye, which she'd actually suffered during a botched assassination attempt, and you've got a weirdly inappropriate action film which, if remade today, would have to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up to avoid storms of political incorrectness.

There's nothing the least bit realistic about Assassination's conflict, and even though Bronson and Ireland were real-life husband and wife, their chemistry isn't anything to write home about, but when the film involves scenes of Bronson firing rocket launchers at fleeing motorcyclists or into entire barns to take out one dude, it's really hard to care about Assassination's shortcomings. It's a fun, light, Bronson-having Cannon film that will undoubtedly entertain the legions of fans the craggy-faced superstar left behind following his death in 2003.

Assassination is not exactly bottom-barrel Bronson, but it's nowhere near his most celebrated, either artistically (Walter Hill's Hard Times) or ironically (Michael Winner's masterpiece Death Wish 3). Still, it's a very watchable and consistently entertaining nonsensical romp with some decent stunt work and a healthy amount of casualties, but most importantly, it's Bronson doing what Bronson does best: kill men, make wry comments, and be effortlessly bad-ass while wearing a suit.

Feb 1, 2021


Film fans are very discerning, and very segmented, which is something that can be as advantageous as it can be detrimental. But the most important thing these film fans need to realize, or maintain, is that there’s a difference between a film being good in general, and a film being good for what it is. It’s when one comes to define what “it” means that things can get complicated.

Skin Trade is one of the better limited-release/direct-to-video actioners starring Dolph Lundgren who in the course of ninety minutes kills a LOT of men. Much like his character of Andrew Scott in the original Universal Soldier, Mr. Lundgren, too, must be part machine, as Skin Trade marks his seventh feature film in the last two years. (He also somehow managed to fit in an entire season of a television show.) While Lundgren has built himself a steady and loyal fan-base over the years (your reviewer counts himself as one), and except for nostalgia, it’s sometimes tempting to ask why: simply put, the busy action icon’s output lacks, how shall we put this…consistency. At least, not in the positive sense. Though it may be painful to say, a large portion of Dolph’s post-Rocky IV career is inundated with forgettable titles destined for video store shelves (and in the post-millennium, the Redbox). While it might be relieving for the curious to report that Skin Trade is Dolph’s best action vehicle, as a lead, in quite a while, let’s also keep in mind what we’re utilizing as a basis for comparison. Let’s also discuss how accidentally hilarious so much of it plays out.

Dolph plays New Jersey detective named Nick Cassidy, who one night on the docks of Newark kills the son of Serbian crime boss Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman) and inadvertently invites the wrath of the Dragovic family down upon him, leading to the explosive deaths of his wife and daughter. Now on the run in Thailand, he is pursued by Thai detective Tony Vitayakui (Tony Jaa, in his shaky English-language debut), who believes Nick is responsible for the death of his partner. Though initially at odds (meaning, violence is committed upon each other), they begin to work together in an effort to bring down Dragovic for good and put an end to his human trafficking operation. All during this, Nick is relentlessly pursued by FBI Agent Eddie Reed (Michael Jai White), who wants to take Nick down – at any cost.

When your film stars Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, and Robocop himself, Peter Weller, let’s just say it’s clear the filmmakers are attempting to appeal to a certain faction of their potential audience – an audience that wants to see brutal violence, impressive stunts, and face-smashing fight choreography, all committed by men they have come to idolize. It’s an audience who wants to see Lundgren land cannon-like blows upon his enemies, Jaa take out a room full of men with nothing more than his belt, and Jai White make every living breathing man on Planet Earth feel like an utter waste of gooey skin. In that regard, Skin Trade is massively entertaining. Whether violent shootouts or man-on-man fisticuffs, every icon on the marquee shares a scene with the other, and does what they do best. Lundgren is brute force, Jaa defies every natural biological and physical law, and Jai White…well, god damn, you shit your pants just looking at him. Every confrontation is more thrilling and well-executed than the previous, and it’s during these moments that you won’t be questioning why you’re watching the film in the first place. But while those things aren’t occurring…

Skin Trade first falters with its script, which comes dangerously close to bordering on parody. The dialogue spewed by our characters at no point comes close to realistic and often results in unexpected laughs. Dragovic’s son grasping an MP5 and rushing into a shoot-out while bellowing “I AM MY FATHER’S SON!” only to be immediately cut down is the stuff of Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams. Lundgren stepping into the interrogation room and staring Dragovic hard in the eye, only to throw down a file folder and demand, “How do you sleep at night?” ain’t helping. But perhaps the best belongs to the scene in which Dolph lies near comatose in a hospital bed following the explosive attack that stole the lives of his wife and daughter. Lundgren, his face half-bandaged, looks up at Costello (Weller), his superior, and asks if his wife and daughter survived the attack. Costello looks down, stoically, emotionally, and shakes his head, confirming Dolph’s worst nightmare…leaving Jai White’s Reed to step up and unnecessarily say, “Your wife and daughter are dead.”


The interaction between many of the character seems half-baked, as if written by an automaton trying to mimic human behavior. Cassidy comes home to his teenage daughter and awkwardly ruffles her hair, as if she were instead his ten-year-old so, before she stands up and recites Shakespeare by heart. Dolph, a father in real life to two beautiful teenage daughters, for some reason seems entirely out of his element interacting with who is supposed to be his child, and appears to want the scene over as soon as possible. Once this discomfort ceases, Cassidy’s attractive wife reminds him that it’s actually their anniversary, which he has completely forgotten; watch as she grins big and peels off her robe to reveal a fiery red negligee to pleasure him with, anyway. Anniversary-schmanniversary – let’s bang!

Weller and Perlman appear in very limited capacities, with the latter showing up only during the first act and the last ten minutes, and the former in two scenes in which he's saddled with an awful lot of unconvincing exposition. Weller, even though he's playing a traditional character, seems rather uncomfortable with what he's doing - and this is a guy who once masturbated a giant bug-typewriter on screen. Based on Perlman's performance, it's evident he assumed the film would hardly be seen and didn't expect a label as prominent and respected as Magnet/Magnolia to secure distribution, because except for trying on a lazy Russian accent, he can barely be bothered to appear present. He's capable of far better, which he's already proven with his six-season run on Sons of Anarchy (on which he worked under the eye of director Weller for several episodes).

The direction by Ekachai Uekrongtham, too, shows the kind of dangerous confidence expressed by the overly confident. Editing choices meant to be shocking and unorthodox simply come across as confusing, even disorienting at times. Scenes will begin with the unmistakable feeling that the audience didn't arrive for them in time, and are interrupting something that’s long been in progress. Other scenes will include spliced single shots of characters looking forlornly down at the ground or off into the distance for no real reason, other than to invoke reactions of, “Boy, is HE sad!” Much like national public radio, at times it feels like Skin Trade contains a lot of dead air, leaving it feeling awkward and unfinished.

Perhaps the most telling that Skin Trade was going more for of an Expendables-like casting extravaganza is confirmed by its half-baked ending, which less seems to be promising a sequel and more seems to be suggesting that because the bad guys are dead, and the good guys have no one left to blow away with shotguns or violently pummel about the body, there’s really no reason for the film to keep happening. The last lingering conflict that needs to be resolved is addressed in a casual voice over tantamount to, "Yeah, I'll get to it."

Ultimately, everything above is for naught. It's window dressing. Details. To potential audience members of Skin Trade, look at the poster. Look at those names. Lundgren. Jaa. Jai White. Does that appeal to you? Do you want to see these guys share the screen and commit bloody pain against each other? Do you want to witness these demigods lay to waste dozens of bad guys? Then at the very least, you’ll have a great time.

If you’re intrigued by Skin Trade for any other reason, then I don’t know how you sleep at night.