Jul 25, 2021

CHUCK (2017)

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

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

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

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

Jul 23, 2021

LOST AFTER DARK (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 19, 2021

BLOOD MONEY (2017)

  

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 17, 2021

MATINEE (1993)

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

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

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

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

Jul 16, 2021

MISSING ROMERO


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

Jul 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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