May 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

May 26, 2021

AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 24, 2021

12 STRONG (2018)

  

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

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

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

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

May 21, 2021

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

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

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

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

THE BLAND


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

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

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

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

THE UGLY


Did you know there are eleven Children of the Corns?

ELEVEN!

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

And people WENT TO SEE IT

Children of the Corn ELEVEN

During a PANDEMIC.

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

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

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

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

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

May 19, 2021

ATOMIC BLONDE (2016)

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

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

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

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

May 17, 2021

CUB (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 14, 2021

BAYWATCH (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 12, 2021

BØRNING (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 11, 2021

SCARY STORIES TO SLASH IN THE DARK

These are so goddamn terrific. The artist known as Watchful Eye has re-imagined the slasher genre's most iconic mass murderers using the infamous drippy artwork style by Stephen Gammell for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series







Buy prints.

May 10, 2021

RUNAWAY TRAIN (1986)

Well, here it is: Cannon Films’ lone, extremely rare, legitimately good film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adorer of the Cannon legacy and much of their output, but I know when to call a duck a duck. Original one-sheets for Death Wish 3 and Invasion U.S.A. will be thrown into the crematorium with me when I finally check out of this place, but I could never with a straight face say that either of them are “good.” Runaway Train is, even if “a Golan-Globus production” just happens to precede it. With a script originated/inspired by Seven Samurai’s Akira Kurosawa, two powerful performances from its leading men (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts), and a great deal of thematic weight attached to what otherwise would be viewed as a high-concept and broad action/thriller, Runaway Train strived to be more than just a piece of shallow entertainment, achieving nominations for three Academy Awards, as well as for the Palme d’Or for director Andrei Konchalovskiy.

To modern audiences, Runaway Train will feel like a case of been there/done that, even though it was one of the first to do what it did. (1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three takes that honor). Though 2010’s Unstoppable, starring Denzel and directed by Scott, claims to be based on a true story, the similarities between the two films can’t be denied — right down to the threat of the train derailing at a nearby chemical plant, threatening to spread toxic waste radiation across a circumference of alarming square mileage. Both even maintain the old and somewhat broken down man (Voight, Washington) caught up in the conflict with a young, somewhat cocky punk (Roberts, Pine) forced to work together, lest they become train goo. But where Unstoppable's leading men eventually become partners and equals, each walking away from the conflict with a mutual respect, that ain’t the case in Runaway Train. Because, again, it wants to be more than just a slice of escapism. It wants to be more than audiences wondering, “How will they stop that train??” (I’ll also throw out that Denzel and Scott additionally collaborated on the Taking of Pelham remake — these guys love trains!)

On the most basic thematic level, the runaway train on which Oscar “Manny” Manhem (Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Roberts) find themselves doubles as their fate. Former inmates of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison, the freshly escaped cons with freedom in their eyes may have eluded their captors, but they have not eluded their fates. The choices they’ve made in life set their course into action — whether behind the walls of Stonehaven, or within the cars of their runaway train, their fates are inescapable, and it’s there they’ll have no choice but to confront the men they are and the lives they chose to lead.

Good performances in film aren’t rare; excellent performances are; but when an actor disappears, chameleon-like, into a role, all while leaving the audience unsettled and intimidated, that hardly ever happens. Look at Daniel Day-Lewis did it in Gangs of New York, Tom Hardy in Bronson, Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting (hey, trains!), but before all of them, Voight did it with Runaway Train. Oscar Manheim is a son of a bitch. He’s such a son of a bitch that Stonehaven’s warden ordered him permanently welded into his prison cell for three straight years. He’s such a son of a bitch that this same warden tries to off him via another prisoner saddled with a shiv. And Voight sinks his brown and metal teeth into the role with a dedication and fierceness seldom seen, nearly unrecognizable with his droopy eye and southern-fried fu manchu.

And then there’s Eric Roberts in an early effort which sees him in a rare role where he plays a good guy, albeit a prison escapee. He’s mouthy, energetic, and somewhat frantic — like a wild pup getting a taste of freedom after being kenneled for too long: manic and unrestrained, wanting to go everywhere and sniff everything. With only three months of time left yet to serve, his last-second decision to accompany Manny on his prison escape says a lot about the kind of person he is. He’s impulsive and brash, but also kind of a romantic, which to audiences translates as an innocent.

Unfortunately where Runaway Train loses momentum is with the inclusion of the character played by Rebecca De Mornay, who according to the credits plays “Sara,” even though I’d swear her name is never spoken aloud. It’s less that her performance comes off weak (even though it does), especially when sharing scenes with Voight and Roberts, and it’s not just that she’s saddled with the worst dialogue the film has to offer (“There’s a miracle coming, I feel it in my heart!”), but her character ultimately proves pretty useless. The name “Sara” notwithstanding, she’s actually an on-screen representation of the audience. Her job is to either provide exposition for whomever in the theater seats might be running a little behind, or to echo the thoughts that audience members are likely having. She’s there to whisper into their ears so they know how they should be feeling about the dynamic between the characters. And in a kind of ham-fisted way, her presence — that of “innocence” — is supposed to manufacture conflict for those personnel in the train station (Kenneth McMillan; The Thing’s T.K. Carter) with whether or not they should be trying very hard to make sure the train doesn’t derail. Had her character been wiped entirely from the story, leaving just the two cons behind on the train to face each other’s personalities, all while the train personnel grappled with whether or not the lives of two prisoners (i.e., bad guys) are worth it, both the duality of nature and the additional complication of the choice of crashing or saving the train would have felt more intimate and suspenseful: let the men die and avoid catastrophe, or take the risk and save their lives, even if they are “bad” men.

That aside, Runaway Train is still an excellent ride, anchored by excellent performances, wonderfully hectic and documentary-like cinematography by Alan Hume, and, somehow, direction by Konchalovsky that comes off both assured and chaotic. John P. Ryan, who played an array of bastards both villainous and heroic during his period as a stable actor for Cannon Films, turns in a sinister supporting performance as Warden Ranken, offering an additional threat on top of the one the cons are trapped within, and which is hurtling 90 miles an hour toward doom.

Cannon Films may not have made many “good” films during their tenure, but they’ve made at least one that was certainly excellent. For all the Wildey Magnum bullets that Paul Kersey fires into punks, or rocket launchers that Matt Hunter aims at Russian commie terrorists, none of them pack the punch of Voight’s performance, Konchalovsky’s direction, or an out-of-control Runaway Train.

May 7, 2021

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

A Michael Bay film about the Benghazi attack and subsequent death of Ambassador Chris Stevens sounds like one of those things that shouldn't work. In a satirical skit about the dumbing down of America, a character would joke about wanting to go see Michael Bay's new film, "9/11: The Movie," in which a CGI American flag destroys every evil terrorist from sea to shining sea. And while that's perhaps a bit unfair, it's also kind of not, because this is the reputation Michael Bay has created for himself, all while working for the same Hollywood system that's entirely open to taking a real-world tragedy and turning it into profitable exploitation. We've had Twin Tower films, Osama Bin Laden assassination films, hijacked 9/11 plane films, and with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, we have the Benghazi film – the worst terrorist attack the United States has suffered since September 11, 2001. And the mere idea of Michael Bay announcing such a film was the stuff of cynical eye-rolls and immediate dismissals.

In Hollywood, there’s an understanding that directors with prestige are, and generally should be, the ones to bring such real-life tragedies to life; i.e., Steven Spielberg with Schinder’s List or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. Though whether or not such true-life horrors becoming fodder for movie theaters is a tasteless move is constantly up for debate, but if they’re going to be made, it’s best they’re helmed by people with a history for quality output and adept at presenting real human drama.

Using his money-printing Transformers series as clout, Michael Bay – the director of five films (so far) about robots turning into other robots and fighting evil robots from outer space (all while destroying Chicago) – elbowed his way to the front of the line to helm 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Though it does contain the same kind of violent, operatic destruction for which Michael Bay has been known since his directorial debut, it also contains something a bit unexpected and absolutely welcome: a bit of restraint from the director of Bad Boys 2, as well as a bit of maturity.

Make no mistake – though screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Strain) was the one to adapt the nonfiction book by Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex Soldiers, the script still manages to fall victim to the usual Michael Bay-isms. Though based on very real men, characterization falls by the wayside. Played by lesser known actors (which works to the film's benefit), each soldier is given a modicum of background and some personality quirks to differentiate who everyone is, but except for lead soldier (as presented by the film) Jack Silva, played by The Office's John Krasinski, the men's identities are tough to distinguish. 'Boon' (also The Office's David Denman) reads books. 'Tanto' (Pablo Schreiber) cracks jokes. 'Rone' (James Badge Dale) seems to really like war. These could very well be close to the real men, but their translation to the screen filters out much of their needed characterization. Bay, to his credit, does manage to include a handful of scenes in which the men either talk about or communicate via Skype with their wives and children (one of these instances, taking place at a fast good drive-through, is actually one of the best and most human moments Bay has ever directed), but once shit hits the fan and everyone is covered in soot, it's legitimately confusing at times to see through the black faces and heavy beards and figure out just who is who at any moment.

And again, being that this is a Michael Bay film, scenes striving toward drama can border on the overwrought, overly patriotic, and emotionally manipulative. Silva hasn't been at the annex for five minutes before he's sitting alone on his bed and thinking about his family in flashback form. We can fault a somewhat clunky script (which sports no less than six sarcastic uses of the word "fun") containing some truly heinous dialogue, as well as an odd amount of jokes that never seem to gel with the very serious conflict in which the soldiers soon find themselves engaged. (I wasn't there so I can only speculate, but if the real soldiers made at least half these jokes during the actual firefights, then I am speechless.)

Still, the shortcomings of the script are counteracted by Bay's extravagant yet restrained – and at times, downright graceful – direction. His quick-cutting style is severely dialed down, replaced by gorgeous sweeping exterior shots of the conflict as it's unfolding. He also resurrects his “bomb POV” shot from 2001’s recklessly stupid Pearl Harbor, in which the camera tracks with a bomb released by its aircraft and follows it down, watching it whirl through the air until landing near its intended target. It’s less Bay cribbing from himself and more his acknowledgment that whether here or abroad, war has to begin and end somewhere – and that includes conflicts we understand, like World War II, or those still mired in questions and controversy, much like our unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cinematography by Dion Beebee eschews Bay's normal living painting style in favor of ground-zero witnessing, relying on scurrying handheld cameras to put the audience directly in the middle of the fight. It's been done before, of course, but not by Bay, and seeing him employ its use forces you to examine him as not just a director, but a filmmaker.

Did you see what I just said?? 

It's a shame that 13 Hours didn't do well financially at the box office, as not only was this a film that more people needed to see, but it just seems like one more nail in the coffin for directors leaving their comfort zone to make something "important" before heading back to their franchises and brand names that print money while killing brain cells. Better than your typical Michael Bay fare, but not in the same league as other relevant modern films The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, or United 93, 13 Hours presents a refreshingly Michael Bay-lite take on a very true story. As to be expected, the action scenes are phenomenal (while thankfully managing to skirt political agenda), a somewhat clunky script and uneven tone are what holds back 13 Hours from the kind of prestige its colleagues have gone on to earn. Removing the mindset that this was a true and horrific thing which really took place and examining it only as a piece of entertainment, 13 Hours makes for a thrilling, visceral, and unrelenting experience and perhaps even one of the best action films of the 2010s.

May 5, 2021

APT PUPIL (1999)


Stephen King has seen more adaptations of his written body of work than any other writer living or dead, except maybe for Bram Stoker, whose novel, Dracula, has been adapted for a literal, accurate, and confirmed figure of ninety bajillion times. As such, among these King adaptations, some are classic, some are decent, and some are best forgotten. His 1982 four-novella collection, Different Seasons, contained the original stories that would later be adapted into Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and then Apt Pupil. The fourth story, The Breathing Method, is in the works under the direction of Sinister’s Scott Derrickson, so the Different Seasons adaptation game is looking like a clean sweep. Not bad for one book. (The jealous author in me weeps bitterly.)

Until Derrickson’s adaptation sees release, Apt Pupil remains the dark horse adaptation of the book. Having been released to mixed-to-positive reviews back in 1999 (and mired in controversies/production difficulties), and directed by a post-Usual Suspects Bryan Singer (the X-Men series, Valkyrie), Apt Pupil has always remained just under the radar in the King world. Headlined by Brad Renfro (The Client), who died at the age of 25 in 2008, and whose death was overshadowed by the passing of Heath Ledger one week later, Apt Pupil presents a young, well-to-do high school student and all-around sociopath Todd Bowden, who deduces that an elderly member of his community, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is a former Nazi living in hiding under an alias. Bowden, fascinated with Nazi atrocities (or perhaps just atrocity in general), first blackmails Denker before cautiously befriending him, wanting nothing more than to hear all of Denker’s vile holocaust stories. And Denker, at first backed into a corner, slowly begins to spin the arrangement to his advantage, until the two get to a point where both are manipulating each other. As such, only one will likely walk away.

As can be expected by a King work, Apt Pupil is very dark – not in terms of gory visuals, but more its tone and its subject matter. There’s no blacker stain in the world than the atrocities of Nazi Germany during World War 2; even without the grainy black and white photographs of stacked bodies and emaciated figures, the mere discussion of it is still upsetting enough that Apt Pupil presents as a somber and by-design upsetting experience. Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce don’t back away from the darkness of the story’s subject matter, although it does update certain aspects, such as its much more explosive finale (to be expected in 1999’s immediate post-Columbine era).

Ian McKellen is chilling in his role as the runaway Nazi, whose villainous turn almost laughs in the face of his more well-known, and by comparison, lovable, take on the X-Men series’ Magneto (ironically, a survivor of the holocaust). But in a way, it’s Renfro as Bowden who walks away as the film’s bigger sociopath, and that’s because he wears the façade of a sixteen-year-old kid in a varsity jacket and has a pretty girlfriend on his arm, who society would dictate has the perfect life, and hence, is no one to worry about. Renfro finds a way through all that and presents an angry, confused, and severely psychotic kid for whom more teachers would write a letter of recommendation than recommend him for psychological counseling. (Sadly, Renfro battled with drug addiction throughout his 20’s, nearly obtaining the lead in Freddy vs. Jason before a bizarre incident in which he stole a yacht cost him the role.)

On the triple tier Stephen King adaptation scale, Apt Pupil rests comfortably in the upper-middle ranks. The lead performances and Singer’s direction are top notch, while the screenplay can sometimes meander, with its neutered ending sacrificing much of the impact of King’s original story. Still, it’s certainly one of the better King adaptations, with immense talent on both sides of the camera. Sadly, it’s also more relevant in the modern climate than it’s ever been before.

May 3, 2021

SYNCHRONICITY (2015)

There is one thing that all time travel movies have in common, and that’s this: none of them actually make sense. That’s the paradox of the time travel film: though each goes out of its way to carefully explain the rules and possible ramifications of time travel, at the end of the day, none of them make sense. Putting aside that time travel, in reality, doesn’t actually exist, and therefore can’t be held up to any existing rigorous scientific criteria, each one featuring an individual traveling back or ahead in time in order to fix a conflict or know the unknowable is, honestly, just making shit up as it goes. It’s examining what is necessary to its own plot, making sure it’s arguably sensible in narrative form, and jettisoning the rest. And honestly, that’s fine. Even the most historically accurate film leans on fiction. Biopics fudge a detail now and then. Dinosaurs have been brought back to life, people. WITH FROG DNA. It’s fine. If those films are allowed to play with reality, the time travel film is certainly allowed the same consideration. But it’s when the time traveling and its ramifications get lost in its own plot that it can get a little frustrating.

From a technical standpoint alone, Synchronicity is beautifully made. Heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, right down to the incredible synth-based score by Ben Lovett, but also containing bouts of TRON, Dark City, and other titles of the cyberpunk era, no one can say that Synchronicity isn’t audacious as hell. Certainly the first cyberpunk time-travel film-noir romance of its kind, Synchronicity has been brought to life with a very assured and very confident hand by writer/director Jacob Gentry (The Signal—2007, not 2014). From the opening sequence alone, the audience is immediately transported into a time and environment in which they have had zero previous experience. In the same way Blade Runner opens in a very foreign cityscape, replete with merging cultures and disturbing amounts of futuristic gadgetry, Synchronicity, too, plummets the audience directly into the thick of an unusual and dangerous experiment. Who are these three men? What are they doing? Is this sanctioned or have they gone rogue? What’s with this awesome music?

Chad McNight as Jim Beale does admirable work as a man obsessed—first with his potentially world-changing experiments, but later on with the mysterious and beautiful Abby, who enters into his life seemingly at random until that randomness is called into question. He spends much of the film frantic, backed into a corner, and doubting everything—this mostly works for him, but sometimes it doesn’t. Brianne Davis, however, as the noir-required femme fatale, doesn’t quite grasp what she’s supposed to be doing. Her performance as the untrustworthy siren of Jim’s growing infatuation is largely inconsistent; her abilities to emote simply through facial expressions certainly helps in establishing the mystery of her character, but this is too easily counteracted during most of her dialogue scenes, where her hesitance with the role is all too palpable. AJ Bowen, Canada’s version of a young Vincent D’Onofrio, does expectedly fine work as Jim’s co-experimenter, Chuck, who finds himself swept up in Jim’s increasingly complicated life (lives?) as he struggles to save his friend.

Plus this thing’s got Michael Ironside!  He can make your head explode just by WILLING it! I’m not even talking about Scanners, but in REAL LIFE.

Synchronicity stumbles the most (but not doing any permanent damage) in its handling of the actual time travel aspect—considering this is being sold as a time travel film, that understandably sounds alarming. Synchronicity throws a lot at its audience, expecting them to grasp as many breadcrumbs as it can as the film barrels through its narrative. Once one timeline becomes two, which is which, who is who, and wtf all become lodged in your brain, making for a daring but frustrating experience.

Despite these flaws, there is something impressive and impulsively thought provoking about Synchronicity that to outright dismiss the film because of these flaws would be an utter crime. There’s a vagueness, perhaps purposely so, to many of the film’s aspects—like Klaus Meisner’s mysterious company, the future time period in which it’s taking place, the location of the city where it all unfolds—leaving a wake of haze wafting over everything like it’s a dream. The more scientifically minded viewer is going to want to break down the plot’s events to determine who is who at that time, what has changed in this scene being depicted for a second time, what possible implications are to come, but I’m not so sure Synchronicity was designed for that.  Like so many other genre films, time travel or not, the crux of the story is based on Jim and Abby’s growing relationship. Does she love him? Can she be trusted? Will Jim wise the fuck up? Around this dynamic the rest of the film has been wrapped, and whether or not the timeline of events and the science of time traveling makes sense becomes window dressing.

It’s simple, really: if you become engaged by Jim and Abby’s plight, then Synchronicity will prove a rewarding experience. If you’re here for the time travel, then you might find yourself checking your watch.

Taking a page from the book of Blade Runner (and it's five million versions), Synchronicity is impressive to look at. As is demanded by all future-set science-fiction films, the landscape of Synchronicity is cold, sterile, institutional, and impeccably clean. The film leans on blue hues and bright whites because of this, but while also adhering to the dark and shadow of classic film noir. And yeah man, I love this music. The synth-based score by Ben Lovett lovingly skips back in time to the golden age of Carpenter and Vangelis, driving Synchronicity forward, perhaps even atoning for its storytelling flaws in the same way that Daft Punk's masterpiece of a score for TRON: Legacy aids in propelling it from mediocrity to an incredible visual and audio experience.

Synchronicity gets a cautious but still enthusiastic recommendation, if for nothing more than its ambitiousness. How its story will grab you is tough to predict. It's a wonderful technical experience, providing beautiful visuals and an equally beautiful if slightly melancholy musical score. For those longing for more San Angeles ambience, look no further: it's easy to believe that while Deckard is hunting down replicants in the rainy night, just a few blocks over, the events of Synchronicity are unfolding in not just one but two separate timelines. And like Blade Runner, perhaps it will take some time before Synchronicity's story can be truly appreciated.