Mar 31, 2021

DUNKIRK (2017)

Steven Spielberg, over the last 30 years, has adopted a practice that’s become known as “one for them, one for me,” which is how he chooses his projects. He makes one film “for them” — the audience who wants the big and fun tentpole — “and me” — the more personal and intimate story that he feels compelled to tell. Think Munich (“for me”) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Crystal Skull (“for them” — and thanks for nothing, by the way). Christopher Nolan, through his extremely successful (and profitable) tenure with Warner Bros., has been embarking on the same journey — and billions of Batman revenue has made the studio pretty amenable to keeping Nolan codified. But even then, his more personal films have still been bigger than life. His “one for me” films consist of The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar, all of which have still managed to find a wide audience while satisfying his itch to tell those less broad kinds of stories. Like Spielberg, these kinds of non-mainstream tentpoles also found success at the box office.

So it’s kind of appropriate that Nolan’s latest finds him in World War II territory, which Spielberg previously explored with Saving Private Ryan (perhaps his best “one for me” film).

Dunkirk shows Nolan at his most experimental since Memento — not because of the story he’s telling, but in the way he chooses to tell it. This wartime experience is told by three separate groups of people, who for the most part never share screen time with each other (including fighter pilot Farrier, played by Tom Hardy, who conceals his face for most of his screen time with his jet’s face gear). It’s not quite real time, but it feels damn close, and there’s an intent on both Nolan’s part, as well as composer Hans Zimmer, to never let the tension cut. Whether it’s two soldiers trying to “buy” their way onto a rescue ship by carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher, or a father and son civilian team steering their boat to the Dunkirk coast to transport soldiers home, or a trio of fighter pilots trying to quell the enemy in the air, Nolan never lets the looming threat settle, and Zimmer’s music slowly, slowly, slowly builds, rarely taking a break.

There was some minor guff online about Nolan’s audacity in making a PG-13 war film, because war in real life is brutal, and hence… But once you see that Nolan isn’t interested in shooting something as grisly as Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy Beach invasion, all of that falls by the wayside. There’s very little blood in Dunkirk and almost no violence, but it never feels “missing” so much as it becomes known early on that it’s simply not necessary.

Where Dunkirk falters is in its characterization, with its various characters being defined as: scared, patriotic, and brave. In the case of the former, this unfairly taints the audience’s view of the few soldiers on screen who have every right to have been psychologically ravaged by war, but who don’t have the audience’s sympathies, anyway. The film opens with young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) first running from enemy fire as his fellow soldiers are shot down, and then trying to take a shit on a beach, and then attempting to sneak on board a rescue ship, later defying orders from a superior officer to scram and hiding below the docks. This is our first impression of Tommy, who says more than once throughout that he “just wants to go home,” and he’s not someone the audience can become fully invested in. Between the treatment of this character, and things like Tom Hardy’s one-note performance, during which he makes the Tom Hardy face the whole time (and who I swear tries to sound a little like Bane in some scenes just to fuck with people), Dunkirk is better left to revel in its IMAX-shot war scenes than with the characters participating in them.

Dunkirk is a solid wartime film, and Nolan’s overall best since Inception, but its somewhat cold depiction of its characters muddy the waters of what the audience has come to expect by now of their on-screen war heroes. In this regard, it’s no Saving Private Ryan.

Mar 29, 2021

NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008)

It can be difficult to create an all-encompassing documentary that looks at the history of cinema unless it’s on one very specific topic. How can you possibly cover everything that’s worthy of being covered? How can you convey what you want to convey when knowing you can’t possibly include everything that should be included?

Mark Hartley’s 90-minute documentary on Australian cinema, Not Quite Hollywood, finds a way. Split into three main sections — exploitation, horror, and action — Harley explores Australia’s movie making beginnings and the country’s efforts to at least get their movies into American theaters. Not Quite Hollywood excels not just as a respectable examination of Australian films and filmmakers, but also serves as a witness to the creation of the Australian aesthetic — a look and feel that would soon become known as “Ozploitation,” and which would aid filmmakers in transitioning from making films inspired by other people to establishing their own identity.

In the beginning, when filmmakers were focused on trashy sex pics, nearly soft-core porn, the influences of Roger Corman are almost tangible. Same goes for the horror phase, with obvious odes to Hitchcock, Spielberg, and H.G. Lewis. But once the doc transitions again to the action and adventure phase, much of which is vehicular in relation, you see filmmakers begin to step up and create their own works that would, in turn, inspire American filmmakers. George Miller, perhaps one of the few Australian directors to command the Hollywood box office (along with James Wan), most recently with Mad Max: Fury Road, is a notable exception of a director who, like John Carpenter or George Romero, started small with low budget productions and eventually changed the landscape of movie making.

Not Quite Hollywood is also often very funny, getting a lot of mileage from frequently cutting back to Australian film critic and full-time curmudgeon Bob Ellis for him to dryly voice his disapproval over certain titles, certain directors, or certain entire cinematic movements. Hartley also occasionally lets his camera linger on certain certain subjects whom other interviewees have suggested as having, er…interesting or combative personalities, in an effort to offer an inkling that maybe there was something to those claims. Inversely, stories about the utter insanity that Dennis Hopper engaged in during the shooting of Mad Dog Morgan, when compared to the interview portions with Hopper (who good-spiritedly appears) that present him as very calm, reflective, and absolutely honest about his past behavior, are equally amusing.

It’s no surprise that Quentin Tarantino turns up as a talking head, and probably gets more screen time than some of the actual Australian filmmakers whose films are being discussed, but the overly excited director helps to represent that next generation of international directors who were clearly inspired by Australian cinema. James Wan and Leigh Whannell also appear, with Whannell freely admitting that the scene in Mad Max where Mel Gibson offers a bad guy shackled to a flaming car a handsaw directly inspired one of the main concepts of their then-hit horror film Saw. (Not Quite Hollywood was produced in 2008.)

Even if you don’t have a particular interest in Australian cinema, you’d be wise to embrace Not Quite Hollywood anyway. Though the accents may be different and the environments more desert-ridden than cityscaped, the spirit of low budget filmmaking — and all the trials and tribulations that come with it — are universal.

Mar 26, 2021

GEORGE A. ROMERO'S SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)

 

In terms of social consciousness, Romero always thought big. In his horror films, he was skewering culture, government, militaries, communication, and societal responsibilities. He was always thinking and depicting things on a grand scale. With Season of the Witch (also released as Hungry Wives), a much more intimate film than even Night of theLiving Dead, he’s turning an eye to the life of domesticity among the woman half of a relationship, and is doing so through the eyes of exactly one bored housewife: Joan.

Romero regretted his inadvertent portrayal of women in Night of the Living Dead as weak-willed shrews either babbling incoherently on a couch, being bossed around by her domineering husband, or running brainlessly out into the thick of danger only to explode. Season of the Witch, an entirely female-centric satire on housewife culture, is obviously a direct response to that, but it also threatens to go a bit too far in that direction. Joan’s husband is a dismissive, angry, and demeaning man far more interested in his job then in being a loving partner to her or a patient father to their daughter. When Joan later meets another potential suitor, Gregg, a sort of free-spirited pot-smoking rebel, he does challenge her philosophically and provide to her the quasi sexual awakening she didn’t know she’d been seeking, but he still treats her dismissively and with a detectable air of pity. The men are broad representations of stifling male archetypes, which, sure, enables Joan’s transformation from victim to victor, but it’s handled in just a bit too heavy handed of a notion.

Season of the Witch is more engaging as a character study than as a horror film (it’s probably the least horrific of all Romero’s films while still being cataloged as a horror film), but it also plods along at its own pace, occasionally lapsing into sequences where the film can feel like it’s stopped altogether.

Season of the Witch has been described as a companion piece to Romero’s] vampire-esque drama horror film Martin, a film in which a young and confused man so identifies as a vampire that he begins attacking people and drinking their blood with the help of a razor blade. Both films are about lonely souls looking to reinvent themselves as something more powerful in order to escape the mundaneness of their unfulfilling lives, and while Martin has gone on to maintain a fairly loyal cult following, Season of the Witch has fallen into obscurity, likely thanks to its less horrific atmosphere and somewhat discomforting environment.

Mar 24, 2021

PILGRIMAGE (2017)

 

Your really clever movie fan will look at the synopsis for Pilgrimage and think, “Spider-Man and the Punisher in the same movie!” and assume they’re in for a light, high-action, bad-ass experience.

Ha!

Instead, Pilgrimage is basically a religious-thriller, hyperviolent version of the Indiana Jones series, filled with graphic combat scenes and hard-hitting human conflict. And it’s quite good — far better than you might expect considering chances are low you’ve even heard of it until now.

What’s interesting about Pilgrimage is that it’s very similar in tone to Christopher Smith’s horror/thriller Black Death, which starred a pre-Game of Thrones Sean Bean and Carice van Houten, but isn’t a horror film at all. That’s not to say that horrific things and images aren’t a large part of Pilgrimage, because they are. But if you’re familiar with The Black Death, that’s the kind of unflinching, bleak, and discomforting experience you can expect.

Though he received more attention and praise for his role in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, as Diarmuid, Tom Holland is excellent here, looking incredibly comfortable speaking Gaelic and keeping his performance restrained and fearful for a large part of the running time. Joining him is Jon Bernthal, whose unnamed laborer remains mute for the entirety, but manages to convey a spectacularly powerful performance despite that. The bond that forms between him and Diarmuid is a large part of what makes Pilgrimage successful, although it’s not entirely a success.

Pilgrimage’s biggest shortcoming is its pace, which is understandably deliberate at first until the action component starts to pick up as the men find themselves being systematically attacked and their relic targeted. Once this happens, one would expect the pace to quicken, or at least remain quickened, until the finale, but this was not the case, and is what lessens the impact of the finale when it finally does arrive.

Honestly, that’s Pilgrimage’s only issue; otherwise, its story is unique, the performances powerful, and the religious/mystical undertones are thankfully kept ambiguous, never coming down on one side regarding the relic’s supposed powers. It’s brutal at times, both graphically and philosophically, and it just may leave you emotionally drained by its end, but it’s a journey well worth taking. For audiences who enjoy going back in time to faraway lands, Pilgrimage is one of the stronger titles out there to consider — so long as you have a strong stomach.

Mar 22, 2021

SUMMER OF FEAR aka STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE (1978)

Wes Craven based his entire career around teens in peril. This is a sub-genre that John Carpenter’s Halloween would essentially create, which would later pave the way for Craven’s seminal classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. But whereas Carpenter would eventually go on to focus on adults in horror (whoa!), Craven would continue exploring the angst of teenage fears, anxiety, adequacy, and sexuality and parlay that into a dependable career.

One of his earliest efforts was 1978’s Summer of Fear, based on the Lois Duncan novel of the same name. (If you’re unfamiliar with the author, think of her as the female prerequisite to R.L. Stine. If you’re unfamiliar with R.L. Stine, stop making me feel old.) Summer of Fear was a made-for-television movie back when that was just becoming a thing, as Steven Spielberg had just hit it big in this same format with his TV trucker creeper Duel, and was Craven’s immediate next project after The Hills Have Eyes. And this time, it’s The Exorcist’s own Linda Blair, who had just come off the disastrous Exorcist 2: The Heretic, playing the teen whose summer is fearful as she contends with her possibly witchy cousin. 

Summer of Fear is a very okay way to spend 90 minutes, though it’s hindered by a number of things, mostly that Blair’s distressed protagonist, Rachel, is sort of…unlikable. Even when the film hits its stride and definitely establishes Julia to be up to some sort of dastard, Rachel still manages to come off as whiny and self-serving. “My horse!” “My dress!” “My boyfriend!” My hives!” After a while, it’s all just too much. Not helping is that Blair’s hair is hilariously gigantic throughout, as if she’d undergone three consecutive perms prior to that day’s filming. Granted, her appearance wouldn’t matter in a less superficial world, but…come on. Just look at it. She looks like her head was used to test electric current. (Her character also keeps a framed photo of herself in a bikini in her bedroom — I guess so she can…look at herself in a bikini? It’s really weird.)

Most of Summer of Fear is very point-and-shoot, which, to be fair, was kind of Craven’s style in the early part of his career. Up to that point, he’d employed the use of the unrelenting long take, whether it was the rape of Marie in Last House on the Left or the strategically placed corpse of Mrs. Carter as bait in The Hills Have Eyes. He was more interested in what the camera could capture rather than how it might be used. Summer of Fear doesn’t really have the opportunity to deploy these kinds of tricks because much of the film is spent on Rachel piecing together the mystery, leaving Julia’s possibly witchy identity draped in ambiguity.

At some points you have to wonder if Craven is secretly making fun of the material, specifically during the “Rachel is pretty sad montage” which sees her flipping through a magazine called “The Horse Catalog” immediately following the death of her horse and her crying a lot about it, or Julia making out wildly with Rachel’s ex-boyfriend in the driveway as the camera pans over to show that Rachel is watching them sadly from her bedroom window. By film’s end, when Rachel and Julia are locked into a furious battle, throwing each other into bookshelves and grabbing each other by their gigantic hair, they look like two hooded Eskimos wearing bear-skin parkas engaged in warfare and it’s just the best.   

Still, as far as early TV efforts go, Summer of Fear is pretty entertaining. Never boring, and reasonably well made with an engaging enough plot, there have definitely been worse made-for-television movies, take it from me. For Craven completists, it’ll be interesting to see something more restrained from the filmmaker who usually went for the throat in his theatrical works. (Also starring Fran Drescher as basically Fran Drescher.)

Mar 19, 2021

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY (2020)

When Lovecraft Country was first announced by HBO, and the concept was loosely described as the stories and style of H.P. Lovecraft reimagined in the Jim Crow era to highlight the African-American experience, I was fully onboard. That Jordan Peele, director of Get Out and Us, was going to be an executive producer and spiritual consultant for the project was icing. Southern gothic storytelling has always been my jam, especially when it pertains to the horror genre, even if it’s so sadly underutilized. And with Lovecraft enjoying a mini resurgence thanks to Richard Stanley’s recent Color Out Of Space, his coming adaption The Dunwich Horror, and pop culture’s simmering infatuation with everything Cthulhu, it was the right time for someone big like HBO to get behind something prestigious like Lovecraft Country. Having read the source novel by Matt Ruff and now watched the series developed by Misha Green and produced by Peele and J.J. Abrams, I found myself both in awe of how beautifully made it was and baffled by the presentation of its story, both in structure and in tone.

Like the novel, the ten-episode series blurs the lines between a standard narrative and a very loose anthology. Each primary character, like Atticus (Jonathan Majors), Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), and Montrose (Michael K. Williams) each have their own mini arcs throughout the series, with some of them feeling, at least at the time, very standalone (like Letitia’s recently acquired 13-room Victorian house that just so happens to be haunted), yet all these arcs, somehow, directly or indirectly, tie into the main thrust of the story being told. This particular device required that the source story choose one of two options: give each character a similar story to maintain consistency but risk redundancy, or give them diverse stories to maintain dynamism but risk a schizophrenic outcome. Lovecraft Country chose the latter.

The season opener, “Sundown,” along with its immediate follow-up, firmly embraces Lovecraft’s roots, eagerly introducing the kinds of indescribable monsters that often dwelt in the darkest corners or other worlds from his stories. Episode three, “Holy Ghost,” the aforementioned haunted house arc, feels a little more traditional and really ups the gore factor, giving everything a sheen of (intended) pulp fiction storytelling. Episode four, “A History of Violence,” is a full-on ode to the Indiana Jones series, dropping the more horrific aspects in favor of an action-adventure aesthetic that easily could’ve played as a short serial in movie theaters on Saturday mornings during the 1950s. Lovecraft Country continues this trajectory of reinvention throughout its run, sometimes confidently selling its everchanging tone and sometimes falling victim to it. (I could also whine incessantly about all the changes made from the novel that I would consider to be unnecessary and trivial right down to haphazard – along with all the added graphic sex scenes because HBO gonna HBO – but no one ever likes talking to that person so I’ll abstain.)

What’s firmly preserved from the source novel is the African-American experience, which is appropriately, expectedly, and significantly the backbone of Lovecraft Country. What’s witnessed here is ugly, sometimes mind-bogglingly so, and, sadly, doesn’t conjure reflections of “remember when?” but more like realizations of “this is now.” This will no doubt turn off certain viewers (as it did critics) who felt that the infusion of real-life tragedies into this otherwise fictitious series feels exploitative and sensational, so if you’re one of those folks who think that our current society is racially hunky dory, then this series is…probably not for you. 

Each episode is beautifully directed, utilizing a soundtrack that includes an array of Black artists from the 1950s up to the modern era – and in an unusual but fitting move, in place of standard musical selections, the soundtrack also utilizes spoken word performances by prominent Black orators. The “Whitey’s on the Moon” sequence alone is one of the most powerful in the entire series – from the words being spoken to the images it plays over.

The ensemble’s performances are pretty terrific, with few weak spots. Smollett is especially terrific as she reinvents Letitia as more of a fire brand, but it works well in the adaptation’s version of her. Majors, too, presents Atticus as a bit more alpha male; his intensity and his almost-unrealistic physique turns him into an intimidating hero who is hampered with complex emotional baggage – all of which stem from the people he loves, the people who love him, and the people who are supposed to.

Lovecraft Country didn’t fully land with me following my first viewing, but I’ve been thinking about it since then, so obviously an impression was left behind, and I may just give this another spin at some point down the road. Naturally there will be literary folks out there even snobbier than I who turn their noses up at the way this series both acknowledges H.P. Lovecraft as a real and flawed person (along with one of his controversially-titled poems, “On the Creation of N-ggers”), as well as visualizes some of the monstrous archetypes he created, but the overall point of the series is what’s important, and that particular conversation is far more important than its source of inspiration. The below selection, lifted straight from the book and paraphrased in the opening episode, is not just the crux of the story, but a response to our current climate of cancel culture and our ongoing challenge of seeking ways to reconcile the fact that our heroes are sometimes not just unheroic but villainous inside their own minds:

“...stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. … I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes. Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Mar 17, 2021

ARCHENEMY (2020)

Re-examining the anatomy of the superhero movie isn’t a new idea, with two polar extreme examples being the 2008 alcoholic superhero movie Hancock with Will Smith and up to 2019’s Brightburn, which asked a heady question: what if Superman had been born evil? Archenemy, the newest to join this fold, comes courtesy from SpectreVision, aka producers Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh C. Waller. If you have been paying attention to the horror genre for the last several years, there’s no doubt you’ve both seen and appreciated their most recent output – the two Nicolas Cage vehicles Mandy and Color Out Of Space. Based on these two alone, it’s evident that SpectreVision aren’t interested in the obvious, the easy, or the norm. If nothing else, Archenemy, directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real), feels like both a visual successor to and the third part of a spiritual trilogy begun with those two horrific tales of vengeance and the otherworldly. Like those, Archenemy boasts insanely beautiful visuals founded on fluorescent pastels, but which takes one step further by combining them into comic-book-pane-inspired animation to explore Max Fist’s backstory – the crux of his character and the backbone of the is-he/isn’t-he sub-conflict. Archenemy takes a familiar concept, deconstructs it, and rebuilds it from the ground up, borrowing conceptual elements of Christopher Nolan’s ultra-realistic take from the Dark Knight trilogy, but without abandoning the comic book aesthetic that created this genre in the first place.

Archenemy is at its best when it forces the audience to wonder if Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), a drunken, swaggering, beaten up homeless man who rambles about his former home, Chromium, is telling the truth when he talks about being a former a superhero who tried to inspire his people before a violent blowout with Cleo, the “villain” of the piece, caused his expulsion from their world. The other possibility? That Max Fist is “a schizophrenic who lives under a bridge,” and has invented this version of himself to help him understand and compartmentalize a past and unknown trauma. Though filmed in New Mexico, the rundown city where Archenemy takes place is only ever called Hamster City (a possible egotistical nickname bequeathed by Hamster, one of the main characters), but modeled to look like Detroit, which can’t help but conjure memories of Robocop, another pulpy tale in which the leftovers of a former hero are re-purposed to commit major violence against the scum of the city. Though Archenemy never reaches those same glorious violent heights, it proceeds with a confidence in itself that makes its scenes of combat feel like more than just going through the motions. Archenemy works much better – and is, in fact, much more of – a character study about a broken man with a broken mind trying to navigate a new world he doesn’t understand. 

Manganiello is terrific in the role, offering the kind of range he is seldom offered the chance to embrace. With a low and gravelly voice straight from the throat of current Dolph Lundgren, Max has lost every reason he ever had to live in the first place, spending his time binge drinking and fist fighting concrete walls. It’s only when he comes to begrudgingly befriend aspiring writer Hamster (Skylan Brooks), who yearns to write for a BuzzFeed-ish outfit that produces viral content, when Max rediscovers what it means to fight for someone else. Though this new friendship reawakens his sense of purpose, it also manifests a bloodlust that has either been dormant, or which has been triggered for the first time, turning Max Fist into a man both heroic but uncontrollably dangerous. When Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs), a street-level drug dealer, gets herself into trouble with her psychotic boss known as The Manager (Glenn Howerton), let’s just say the slow-motion blood flies all over the screen.

Archenemy has a lot of big ideas, but, despite a somewhat shorter running time than other films from this genre, it feels overstuffed by the end and doesn’t quite land a handful of third-act twists. Still, it’s already earned enough goodwill and genuinely wants to end on an earnest note that it’s easy to forgive such shortcomings. The truth is, Archenemy should be like catnip to comic book junkies. From its design to its familiar but altogether new story, and of course, its violent artistry, it’s a confident twist on an old classic; it’s a quieter title when compared to any of your typical Marvel movie juggernauts, but unlike those blockbusters, Archenemy at least has its own identity – however flawed it may be.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Mar 15, 2021

CITY IN PANIC: THE BEST TORONTO-LENSED, AIDS-BASED SLASHER OF 1986

As someone who makes it a point to plumb the depths of the horror genre, more specifically the slasher sub-genre, and conclusively the slasher sub-genre of the 1980s, I am always on the lookout for a title that vies to do something different, or at least vies to do the same ol’ thing while utilizing a gimmick that’s different. Your less discerning horror fan may stop at the top-tier slasher shelf of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, or any of those infamous 1970s classics, having decided that the resulting sea of imitators couldn’t possibly have merit and weren’t worth examining. From this indifferent perspective, and at the surface level, post-classic, 1980s slashers were all the same: a masked killer that’s mythological in scope or in some way related to the plucky heroine cuts down teenagers at an isolated getaway. The casual horror fan has no interest in this slasher sub-genre’s B-team, perhaps considering reasonably mainstream titles like Terror Train or April Fool’s Day to be as obscure as they wish to go, but for those of us who want to keep diving downward, those titles become almost charming in their broader appeal. Those slashers, competent or not, don’t strike with the same sense of surprise. If you see enough of them, and regardless whether you like them or not, you begin to realize that they really are kind of the same. (Try watching My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler back to back and tell me I’m wrong.) These second-string slashers don’t have that hook that makes them stand out from the rest, either with carefully calibrated ingenuity or sheer dumbfuckery.

In regards to the latter, let’s talk about 1986’s City in Panic.

If you know your histories, you know of the VHS boom that hit during the 1980s, a time during which movie fans could obtain copies of their favorite movies and watch them repeatedly, or trade them with other collectors like baseball cards. Because of this boom, filmmakers realized they had a completely new market readily available in which they could peddle their films. No longer was their lack of access to talent, technology, or even a modest budget going to discourage their ability to make a movie and sell it to distributors. Cut out the middleman, aka theatrical exhibitors, and appeal directly to the consumer at home. This is how the shot-on-video era was born, and with it came a sea of full-screened, standard-definition, oddball titles—and the “direct-to-video” stigma that would follow.

A Canadian production originally filmed under the conflictingly hilarious title “The AIDS Murders,” City in Panic’s story derives from the real-life killings of fourteen men, all customers of the same Toronto bar during the 1970s, all of whom were gay, but none of whom had AIDS. Written by Andreas Blackwell (the writer’s only credit) and Peter Wilson (one of two credits), and directed by Robert Bouvier (one of two credits—are you sensing a theme?), City in Panic, I’m sure, was intended to be more of a socially conscious think-piece and less of the hysterically trashy romp of bad-taste filmmaking that it ultimately became. Director Bouvier had apparently set out to embrace the sub-genre while deconstructing it with a social-issues scalpel, evidenced by the opening murder sequence that replicates the infamous shower scene from Psycho…only this time presenting the stabbing victim as a man instead of the typically nubile young girl the sub-genre had become accustomed to blood-sacrificing. In fact, all of City in Panic’s victims are adult men, taking a further step away from the usual slasher fold and not killing a single teenage girl. (Gasp!) It’s all part of Bouvier’s weird, half-baked intention to channel something like Scream but which results in something like Scary Movie (only funny).

Bouvier didn’t stop at Psycho in terms of presenting City in Panic as some kind of self-aware look at the genre: the flick is a Frankensteinian hybrid of Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (about a controversial radio show host whose extreme views put him in danger at the hands of an unstable listener), William Friedkin’s Cruising (about a serial killer picking off homosexual men), and any typical Italian giallo in which the would-be victim stumbles ass-backwards into the murderous conflict by working with a police detective who, for reasons evidenced by his own techniques, definitely shouldn’t be a detective. More specifically, City in Panic’s plot involves a mysterious giallo-styled murderer, right down to the black gloves and high-collared trench coat, who goes by the alias “M” (inspired by Fritz Lang’s serial killer flick from 1931), and is butchering seemingly random people who all hail from different backgrounds, and who don’t share any obvious connection to each other. It’s only until the investigation is underway when investigators realize the victims do, in fact, have something in common: they had all, at some point in their lives, contracted AIDS. “M,” it seems, is embarking on a bloody path to “protect the city” from this bloodborne scourge, and for some reason, police captain Barry McKee chooses longtime friend and deadbeat dad Dave Miller (David Adamson), a hot-button radio show host, to draw the killer out of the shadows by baiting them into calling his show so the police can trace the call.

As mentioned, and in spite of the comical mess that it ends up being, City in Panic was seemingly designed with good intentions, mostly as an awareness piece about this new deadly disease called AIDS that was spreading fast through certain communities during the 1980s, which was caused by unprotected sex, blood transfusions, and needle drug use. Despite those three causes, and despite both men and women contracting the disease in different ways, AIDS became known, prominently and unfairly, as “the gay plague.” Though it bungles its message with trashy results, City in Panic was striving to show that people suffering from the disease came from different lifestyles: gay and straight men of opposite professions, along with well-put-together women, along with…well, let’s stop there. The film attempts to examine different people through the same unbiased lens, but it completely botches this approach by positing the accidental takeaway that any woman with AIDS is a victim, but any gay man—depicted as visiting bathhouses or soliciting anonymous sex—is someone with an amoral lifestyle who brought it on himself.

Because the gay aspect overwhelms a large part of the conversation, and because this is the 1980s, an era in which there was no such thing as subtlety, City in Panic is built on stereotypical looks at homosexual lifestyles and homophobic characters way too eager to toss off the usual number of gay slurs regardless of who may overhear. Captain McKee chides a homophobic cop who had bellowed, “This is one case I wouldn’t mind not solving,” by loudly reminding him, “NOT ALL PEOPLE WITH AIDS ARE MEN,” and though that’s supposed to be a teachable moment for not just this particular homophobic character but the audience as well, there is zero acknowledgment in the film that AIDS can be contracted through other means beyond sexual recklessness. This is evidenced not just from the scene where a character (who looks hilariously like Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover were fused inside Seth Brundle’s telepod) watches a program about AIDS on television and remarks, “This is why I’m celibate,” but also a really heavy-handed montage where glimpses of Dave having unprotected sex with his lady friend are intercut with Captain McKee looking at crime scene photos of M’s AIDs-having victims.

City in Panic is peppered with so-called opportunities like these to learn and heal, but they not only come off as uninformed preaching, they’re completely undone by scenes like, for instance, a gay character tapping the shoe of the guy in the next public bathroom stall and eagerly sticking his dick through a peephole (through which he initially looks, I guess to see if it’s still a hole, which may or may not be another Psycho reference). Though gay men are ultimately depicted as victims of their choices, those consequences come as the result of broadly “godless” behavior straight from the Westboro Baptist Church playbook. City in Panic takes the slasher flick’s typical presentation of teenagers as hive-minded miscreants who only want to bang, do drugs, and make really questionable choices, and applies the same kind of lazy strokes akin to SNL’s version of homosexual culture, depicting nearly all of its gay victims as engaging in reckless sexual behavior. The most telling aspect of how the film treats gay characters is through its failure to assign them any redeeming qualities; their purpose is to either badger DJ Dave with flamboyantly antagonist behavior—that would be the muckraking, sherry-drinking gossip columnist, who is never outed as being gay but is clearly presented as such, in keeping with the film’s unsubtle characterizations—or die bloodily in a bathroom stall after soliciting anonymous oral sex through a dick hole. There is exactly one gay character with AIDS, Tommy the bartender, who is presented as a real person and not a walking caricature, but it’s not until after he’s been murdered that his two secrets are revealed, which is supposed to feel like a really dumbfounding moment since his character wasn’t engaging in broadly gay behavior. (Dave remarks, in total disbelief, that he had no idea Tommy was gay, as if he should’ve been wearing a sign.)

To lend credit that it doesn’t deserve, City in Panic really is trying to make a point during the final conflict with the killer as they lay it all out on the table and reveal why they did what they did; the scene comes so close to being the kind of genuinely moving moment that teeters on making the audience sympathize with the killer that City in Panic threatens to become kind of a real movie—one that presents life as messy and impossible to categorize—until you remember the preceding 85 minutes and laugh all over again. By then, the damage has been quite done, ultimately leaving City in Panic so void of subtext that its intended conversation about AIDS has no value except for its potential for a drinking game: take a shot every time someone says the word “AIDS,” and take two whenever someone very unnaturally inserts the topic of AIDS into everyday conversation. You’ll be drunk before Dave takes a call from some concerned Canadian listener who thinks wishy-washer liberals need to shut up about mental illness because this killer clearly must be some kind of freak! (It’s all made additionally amusing by the fact that this is a Canadian production, which means there are flagrant uses of “aboot” and “hoose.”)

It feels wrong to say that City in Panic’s value comes from an ironic sense of entertainment, being that it struggles to tackle a major health crisis that was tearing apart communities and instilling a real sense of fear in the general public during the 1980s, but why its makers felt the slasher sub-genre was the best medium through which to convey that message remains a baffling choice, and is handled with all the care of any Three Stooges short where the trio play delivery men constantly dropping shit down the stairs. Bouvier even tries to suggest the slasher sub-genre itself is to blame for all of society’s ills, and this isn’t speculation, but comes as a rational takeaway from Dave’s asking a psychologist guest on his radio show, “Are the people who make slasher films responsible?” And I guess Bouvier doesn’t quite want to throw this against the wall exclusively to see if it sticks, because the psychologist responds by saying all of society is to blame for M’s killings…without ever explaining what that means. (I also feel compelled to point out, since City in Panic is knowingly deconstructing Psycho as part of its plot, that Psycho 4: The Beginning would come about four years later and also lean heavily on a radio call-in show trying to lure and defeat a serial killer, as well as a psychologist guest host who muses about serial killers, as its plot devices.)

It’s not impossible to make a gay-themed slasher flick that actually has relatable, believable characters who just so happen to be gay—see 2004’s Hellbent for an example on how to do this—but you won’t find any of that in City in Panic. Nor will you find substance, maturity, or understanding of what it is Bouvier and co. were actually making, as evidenced by the below and very real exchange from the film’s denouement:

“How could you kill innocent people?”

“THEY HAVE AIDS!”

“You can’t go around killing people just because they have AIDS!”

If you’re a connoisseur of trash cinema and you don’t mind finding some conflicted laughs in a film trying to be socially conscious but failing miserably, spend some time in this City in Panic. Just…stay out of the men’s room.

Mar 12, 2021

PG: PSYCHO GOREMAN (2020)

Say, I have a question: why isn’t EVERY movie PG: Psycho Goreman?

The latest horror-comedy from the creative team formerly known as Astron-6, Canada’s beloved cult filmmaking group, marries together all of their go-to trademarks for outrageous gore, very specific humor, practical effects, and homage to ‘80s and ‘90s Hollywood sensibilities, resulting in their best collaboration to date. Written and directed by Steve Kostanski (his latest was the better than expected solo effort Leprechaun Returns), who helmed most of the group’s other titles like Manborg, Father’s Day, straight horror The Void, and episodes of their web series Divorced Dad, PG: Psycho Goreman can best be summed up as: What if E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial were actually a horrifically violent monster movie but still aimed at kids? What if it contained all the stalwarts of ‘80s/’90s Spielbergian filmmaking like childlike awe and absentee fathers, mixed with Lucas-like galaxial politics, and finished with a healthy dose of Cronenbergian/Verhoeven-ish bodily horror? PG: Psycho Goreman is what would happen, and it would be an utter fucking joy.

With nods to iconic horror titles like Phantasm and Videodrome (as well as Astron-6’s own beloved short film Biocop), and one particularly hilarious homage to Jurassic Park, specifically Sam Neill’s wardrobe, PG: Psycho Goreman embraces the entire horror genre and is seldom unfunny to an alarmingly selfish degree. PG: Psycho Goreman is that scene in a self-serious movie where the hero looks upon the technological creation or mystical conjuring of the main villain and remarks, “This is too much power for one person,” but this time, the power in question is Kostanski’s confident grasp on such strange, unrelenting, and consistent hilarity. Nearly every line of dialogue, confused reaction shot, or extremely strange behavior from one of its characters aims for the funny jugular and always hits its mark. PG: Psycho Goreman is so obsessed with making you laugh that it willingly sacrifices several of its own jokes along the way because there’s no way you’re still not laughing over them from the most previous gag. It’s a smorgasbord of surreal, absurd humor that after a while borders on emotional abuse.


Staying true to its premise, our very young main characters are Mimi (a glorious and all-in Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (a perfectly put-off Owen Myre), two otherwise normal kids who spend their time playing video games or their own recklessly complicated version of dodge ball called Crazy Ball. After a very strange bet, they inadvertently dig up an alien craft in their backyard, retrieve a glowing gem, and resurrect an imposing and horrifying alien warrior from the planet Gigax, whom the kids name Psycho Goreman, “PG for short” (embodied by Matthew Ninaber and voiced by Steven Vlahos). Now under Mimi’s control, the kids begin using PG as their own personal action figure, forcing him to play with them or perform various feats of strength for their own amusement. But after his awakening catches the attention of Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch, Anna Tierney, and Roxine Latoya Plummer), a member of a purposely unclear and corny intergalactic council, PG finds himself in danger, along with Mimi, Luke, and their parents, Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey) and Greg (scene-stealing Astron-6 member Adam Brooks). With the fury and might of a galaxy far far away about to rain destruction down over them and their entire planet, this dysfunctional family must band together to save their new friend Psycho Goreman, an angry and bitter alien menace who very willingly discloses that he’s going to kill them all anyway at the next possible moment. You know, for kids!

Every performance in this madness is pitch perfect, especially from the two kid leads. If you’ve explored the depths of every genre, then you know kid actors can run that gamut from great to grating, but not only do the very young Nita-Josee Hanna and Owen Myre do capable jobs, each of them perfectly encapsulates not just PG: Psycho Goreman’s overall approach but the experience of letting it into your brain and embracing its cinematic lunacy: Hanna’s Mimi is fully on board with everything happening, and she throws an unstoppable enthusiasm and exuberance into her character not seen since the earliest days of Jim Carrey; meanwhile, Mimi’s brother, Luke (Myre), is the audience – the one looking around at everything Mimi is doing and asking two things: “What the fuck is happening?” and “Isn’t this a really, really terrible idea?” It may sound like small praise, but he can rattle off a “…what?” with the perfect amount of confusion.

Also helping to bring PG: Psycho Goreman to joyous life is the blistering soundtrack by Blitz//Berlin that’s equal parts Carpenter synth, ‘90s mega-metal, and over-the-top epic orchestral, not to mention a handful of lyrical additions that are each a play on obscure soundtrack selections from ‘80s hits – like the closing-credits original rap song “Psycho Goreman (P.G. for Short)” straight out of The Monster Squad and the power metal mash-up of “Eye of the Tiger” and Commando’s concluding track “We Fight for Love” called “Two Hands, One Heart.” (I’ve also been listening to “Frig Off!” on a very loud loop in my car all week and staring hard at anyone who looks at me weird.)

Along with an unending line of genuinely imaginative and intricate physical costumes, makeup, and monstrous creations, PG: Psycho Goreman is exactly what it set out to be and is exactly what my broken, post-2020 soul needed. It’s the only comedy I’ve ever temporarily turned off during play because I was afraid I was going to pop a blood vessel in my brain from laughter. If there really is such a thing as killing someone with comedy, PG: Psycho Goreman is the closest I’ve come yet.

Though I’ve rattled off a thousand words that utterly gush over PG: Psycho Goreman, you have to know going in that you’re in for a very specific comedic experience and it’s absolutely not going to be for everyone. If you’re unfamiliar with Astron-6’s previous work, which also includes their giallo spoof The Editor, you can start right here with their Biocop fake trailer. If you’re not in on the joke, stay far away from PG: Psycho Goreman, but if you find yourself laughing and want to see more, then your whole life is about to change for the better.

PG: Psycho Goreman is now on Blu-ray from RLJE Films, and thank fuck for that.

Mar 10, 2021

GEOSTORM (2016)


Please, someone call Dean Devlin on his gigantic Zack Morris cell phone and tell him the ‘90s are over — have been for over 20 years. That he and his former partner, Roland Emmerich, keep insisting on destroying the planet over and over and over is a concept that worked exactly once — with 1996’s Independence Day, which, frankly, was saved by the actors in the cast, not by the concept of aliens with far advanced technology being bested by the kind of computer virus your mother accidentally downloads when she clicks on the funny looking email from your Aunt Doris that says Best deal on pharmaceutical drugs boobs pics other deals: http://GoodDrugsDeals.ru/AJf984jh5jfG95

But that hasn’t stopped them both from repeatedly trying, with Devlin going solo for Geostorm, the latest, the worst, and hopefully the last in this unending trend of planet-flooding/burning/freezing/ miscellaneous destroying.

Devlin gets credit for trying to convince the movie-going public that climate change is real, a very bad thing, and we should maybe do something about it, but his credibility is instantly lost if he actually thinks Geostorm is going to be the thing that turns that ride. When 99% of scientists say that it is real and the spate of ridiculously dangerous storms the world has seen over the last 20 years isn’t enough, seeing a town in Africa filled with frozen-solid citizens or having Ed Harris scream at you over a video monitor will doubtfully do much to help. 

Geostorm, you might argue (if you’re feeling charitable), means well, but all it does is turn a very real problem into mindless and harmless popcorn escapism and something that can be solved by the guy from Dracula 2000 because he’s good with car engines.

Geostorm is terrible. Even when someone is dangerously outrunning fiery explosions shooting through city streets, causing entire buildings to tumble, it’s boring. And offensively brainless. Do me a personal favor: instead of seeing it, go to your nearest nursery, buy a modestly priced tree, and plant it. That would be a much more productive use of both your time and an actual contribution to solving the problem. 

Mar 8, 2021

AFTERMATH (2017)

A long time ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger  set out on a task to accomplish three very specific edicts: to win the title of Mr. Olympia and obtain the prestige of being the world’s greatest bodybuilder, to become Hollywood’s most famous and highest paid superstar, and to become President of the United States (although he would have to settle for Governor, the highest political office his status as an immigrant would legally allow him to obtain.). To have obtained at least one of those goals is a remarkable achievement. Regardless of what you or anyone may think of him, he accomplished all three, which makes him superhuman. Following his exit from political office, he made it quite clear that he intended on rejoining the Hollywood industry, but this time, without any goals in mind or precedents to set. I, however, long ago predicted my own goal that the Austrian Oak may have in store for himself, even if he’d never admit it: the Oscar. Unlikely? Sure. Even those who fully enjoyed Schwarzenegger’s action output over the years would feel hesitant to laude the superstar’s acting skills, which can often become entrenched with his screen presence — an altogether different thing. But following his restrained and intimate turn in the zombie-drama Maggie, during which he showed audiences a side of himself never before seen, he proved his sincerity about exploring different kinds of roles. In keeping with that, Schwarzenegger turns on the tears again for Aftermath, produced by director Darren Aronofsky (which is appropriate, being that he has built a career on films about characters who chase their obsessions to the point of self-destruction).

Immediately addressing the Austrian in the room, Schwarzenegger, again, proves he has the chops to enter into the dramatic genre that, for a long time, was something he admired from afar rather than attempted for himself. The actor’s biggest obstacle is finding ways to overcome that he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been mired so long in parody, and who has been such a gigantic part of pop culture since the 1980s, that it’s extremely difficult to sometimes see past the actor to the part that he’s playing. And that’s what makes his work in both Maggie and now Aftermath so laudable. In his most quiet moments, where he allows his expressive eyes and grizzled face to carry much of the emotional weight, Schwarzenegger can be extraordinary. He approaches these new haunted characters in the same way he’s approached so much of his life’s watermark achievements: in a no-bullshit, 100% genuine manner. When his Roman Melynk is holding the still and frozen body of his deceased daughter, and when his eyes glisten with tears and his mouth stretches unbearably open as he begins to sob, you feel it like a punch to the gut. In moments like these, Arnold’s twenty-plus year career as an immortal bad-ass, finally, works for him. Because he can play broken and weak just as well as anyone else. 

But that’s what makes Aftermath so frustrating. It begins with the screenplay, which in too many ways comes off cheap and manipulative, delivering lazy exposition by having one character talk to another and tell him things he already knows — all for the audience’s benefit, of course. The film opens with Arnold proudly walking around his worksite, his family’s ongoing return flight from traveling abroad fresh in his mind. A co-worker reminds him, aloud, that his family is coming home, and hey, that’s a good thing! Roman goes home to his modest house and fixes the “welcome home” banner that’s gone askew on his wall. He dresses in his finest (garish) clothes to retrieve them from the airport. Keep in mind: the death of his family in a plane crash isn’t a twist or a sudden shock. The trailer, the poster, the synopsis for the film tells us this. We know they are doomed. So all the set pieces leading up to Roman finding out what we already know feels, again, like cheap manipulation. It’s that scene in every sitcom where character # 1 has really disappointing news to confess to character # 2, but character # 2 keeps going on and on and on about how happy he is, etc., which the news that character # 1 has to share is going to destroy. Only we’re not in sitcom territory; we’re in weepy, bleak, tear-strewn drama territory, and it simply can’t survive it.

Like Arnold, Scoot McNairy as Jake offers similarly devastating work as the air traffic controller indirectly responsible for the crash of the plane which killed 227 people, including Roman’s family. In more than one scene, the camera goes in close as he sobs in the face of what he’s done. Small moments like these are scattered throughout Aftermath, which give it the occasional boost of emotional weight. Likewise, Arnold being forebodingly led into the back offices of the airline where we know he’s about to receive the news (and where some other family members already have, and their anguish comes through the wall), or his sneaking onto the crash site under the guise of being a volunteer so he could locate his deceased family — which he eventually does — are extremely effecting. But all of that is mired in an awkward screenplay where characters engage in consistently unnatural-feeling conversations, or where certain characters are painted to be so unlikable, thereby manufacturing cheap sympathy for those affected, that it comes dangerously close to parody. Kevin Zeggers’ small role as a cold and unfeeling lawyer representing the airline comes off so cartoonishly unlikable that it feels more appropriate as the villain of a frat-boy college comedy. (Not to mention, and absolutely nothing against the young actor, but the presence of Judah Nelson as Jake’s son deflates the drama of every scene he’s in, being that he most famously played the son of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman 2. Onc can’t help but remember, even when he’s cowering in fear with tears streaming down his face, that he once stood on the shore next to Will Ferrell, looked out at the ocean at a shark, and said, “Bye, Doby. I hope you eat lots of fish and people.”)

There’s a nugget of a good film somewhere within Aftermath, and director Elliott Lester and director of photography Pieter Vermeer work in tandem to offer a gloomy and bleak environment, but the screenplay by Javier Gullón (Enemy) — like Ron Burgundy Jr. — continuously robs the final product from any sense of drama. 

It’s my sincere hope that Schwarzenegger sees past the indifferent reaction that Aftermath has been receiving and continues to pursue dramatic work. His age, his failure to reignite the box office as he once did, and his own personal misdeeds in life are no doubt a constant presence in his mind and all of that has been serving his dramatic work very well. Let’s hope he’ll be back for more. (Sorry, I had to.) So long as Arnold keeps up his dramatic work, I don’t think it’s impossible for him to one day achieve that Oscar. And that might be a statement to snicker at, but one thing’s for sure: Schwarzenegger has consistently proven people wrong. Maggie was a step in the right direction, and muddled finished product aside, Aftermath was too. In both films, he’s played a man grieving for his family in different ways, and in both films he’s managed to prove that he’s more than just a cyborg in a leather jacket.

Mar 5, 2021

MOVIE MOMENTS: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)

"What is your favorite use of a pop song in a horror movie?"

Tobe Hooper’s sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, is one of the most beloved titles in horror history. A daring sequel that completely circumvents expectations, it does not attempt to match the tone or mood of the legendary 1974, overtly horror original. I also hate it. I mean, I just absolutely, positively, have-to-get-my-hatred-there-overnight for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2; it’s the equivalent of the original’s disturbing dinner sequence stretched out to an agonizing 90 minutes. It’s important I note this hatred so I can then transition into how much I legitimately love the opening sequence, which sees a couple of rowdy frat boy types finding the wrong end of Leatherface’s blade while Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever” blares from the kids’ car stereo. 

Before Danny Elfman composed for film, Oingo Boingo was his new wave, somewhat gothy baby, and like his numerous genre film scores, the band leaned on the darkness of life, and the theme of death was found in many of their songs. Its use in this sequence isn’t just ironic, nor just a way of alerting the audience that they’re in for a very different experience when compared to the original, but it’s also just a toe-tapping good time. And, if your time is up, and you’ve gotta go, go with Oingo Boingo

[Reprinted/excerpted from Daily Grinhhouse.]