The Tale of the Foxx

In memory of Yaphet Kotto
15 November 1939 – 15 March 2021

You can call blaxploitation films a lot of things, but one descriptor you don’t hear very often about blaxploitation movies is that they’re “nice”. That’s kind of the inherent fact about exploitation movies – blaxploitation or otherwise – that they gotta be aggressive at the very least with what they’re selling so that it slams on the lap of the viewer, whether it’s sex or violence or anything else that exploitation cinema is all about. And Arthur Marks’ 1976 film The Monkey Hustle (or The Monkey Hu$tle as the marketing referred to it and though I love that spelling, it’ll be too much of a hassle to type that out over and over in this review) isn’t really all that aggressive about anything, barring a few sequences. Its grit is minimal and in the service of realism more than attitude.

That realism being subject to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, because of course a 1970s blaxploitation movie would have to be set in the area most famously populated by Black-Americans (though a not insignificant part of it passes through Downtown Chicago). And the sort of story that writers Odie Hawkins & Charles Eric Johnson weave into the movie is kind of loose – the subject of its unfair negative reception that it still suffers to this day – but of all the colorful personalities in this movie’s vision of South Side, the one we attach ourselves most to is Daddy Foxx (Yaphet Kotto), a fast-talking hard-hustlin’ small time con man who has already taken under his wing the young Baby D (Kirk Calloway) as his protegé when we first meet him and is taking to teaching two other teens Player (Thomas Carter) and Tiny (Donn C. Harper) in his “Monkey Hustle” schooling.

And while I hate to show my hand so early in this review, I did dedicate this review to Kotto to begin with: this is by and large his movie, owning every shot he is in and delivering all his winding lines with a culture crispness and a speed that rivals any door-to-door salesman. Foxx is not just our anchor because the screenplay frames him that way, conflicting with a plot line involving Baby D’s older brother Win (Randy Brooks) coming back to town after a bad attempt at showbiz on the road and suspicious of Foxx as an influence on his sibling. Foxx is our anchor because he just dominates the screen, being performed by the best actor in the varied cast and having a dynamic swagger in how he walks and talks that would explain how easily somebody could be swayed by his charms.

And yet there are other characters. Some even making for worthy foils towards Foxx, like the flamboyant numbers man Goldie (Rudy Ray Moore, cast at the height of his Dolemite fame to the point that he’s billed next to Kotto for a small part and even takes up the front of my DVD cover) or the matriarchal restaurant owner Mama (Rosalind Cash). And they all have their own negative responses to the proposal of an expressway being built over their neighborhood, something that all the local forces band together to rebel against whenever we’re not just watching Foxx and his crew scam shop owners or Win work to regain the affections of his abandoned beau Vi (Debbi Morgan) or the local cop self-proclaimed The Black Knight (Frank Rice) just fucking up everywhere. I can’t help understanding the complaints about how unfocused and half-baked its script is, while also admitting it’s something I don’t care much about.

The manner in which issues are picked and dropped and forgotten is a big part of what gives The Monkey Hu$tle the amiable feeling it has. Goldie plays as something like a semi-antagonist for a brief time, being the employer behind the closest thing to a full-time antagonist this movie has: Win’s drug-dealing rival for Vi’s affections Leon (Frank Barrett). But one second, Goldie is confronting Player and Tiny for jumping Leon, the next he’s renouncing Leon in the view of everyone. Another moment emblematic of this amnesiac conflict-building is how a truck driver that Foxx’s crew rip off will jump into a length car chase with them, but then halt once he’s stopped by some firefighters being sprayed by local kids and jump out not in an angry mood but laughing at the scene along with the children. The troubles are abandoned the moment the chase is over. Even the last few scenes introduce a crisis of conscience for Foxx late in the game regarding Baby D that just gets tossed aside eagerly so we can rush to the credits.

That’s the way the world of The Monkey Hu$tle feels: nothing particularly personal, everybody is just playing the game and as Foxx puts it “there are many large and small inequities in life that Man must live with…”. And when it comes to actually confronting the man and telling them “no, you’re not stepping in our community” as the climax shows them doing, it’s by that shaggy solidarity that we buy their sincerity and success between the characters’ tension. It’s not a good script, but it tends to amplify the movie’s strengths: letting actors just hang out and be broadly cool. But particularly there is one strength I neglected to address and that’s the loving portrayal of that South Side and Downtown of Chicago that Marks and his crew bring.

It’s not just enough to have a colorful cast, but a grounded environment that is believable for all these characters to live and believe in enough to defend it. And Marks finds a variety of distinct locations to capture like little biomes of one giant world in between Bridgeport and South Shore: empty warehouses and lots, street parties, residential areas, and offices right near the elevated train, all consistent enough to belong to one idea of a Chicago neighborhood that every character feels right at home with.

So a sense of place and a sense of people, neither of which are bad things to have carrying your film. It just tends to show how my sensibilities are different from other filmgoers that I am so easily able to shake off the writing and attach to the liveliness of The Monkey Hu$tle that it ends up one of my favorite blaxploitation movies and thereby a source of optimism and comforting good cheer on the times when I need to watch it and get pulled in by Yaphet Kotto’s silver tongue and cool confidence. I hesitate in calling it Kotto’s best performance (largely because I’ve never watched Homicide: Life on the Street) but when I think of the actor, it’s his giant grin and hanging suit in this movie that pop up first as an image, even before his better-known work in Live and Let Die or Alien or Midnight Run. Just can’t deny why Daddy Foxx gets his way.

“Hey Michael, Check This Out…”

Within the past week I’ve revisited Freddy vs. Jason, the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, and our subject here: the 2009 remake of My Bloody Valentine. And it’s evidently a small sample size of 2000s slasher cinema and reliant specifically on intellectual property with a pre-existing fanbase, but if there’s one major connection one can make of the three (as well as the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes, and the Hatchet series*): the 2000s were not for want on slasher movies that had the proper attitude that that subgenre is meant to have. At the prime of the subgenre in the 1980s, they were all just filled with mean attitudes using the plot and characters simply as vehicles to deliver elaborate death setpieces that flex out their gore effects budget and artistry. They are happy to walk the exploitation walk all the way through.

Their achilles heel however is the fact that they came out in the 2000s and thereby are subject to the sort of polished clean digital look that removes the sort physical visual griminess that these previously often independent, frequently low-budget pictures were forced to have and in turn gave the subgenre a rawness to its craft that horror cinema was kind of moving to in the wake of respectability that stuff like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were bringing. Film stock and the primitivism of that low-budget resource that allowed these films to pop out a dime a dozen in the 1980s was the source of most of the best examples of the form feeling like wallowing in grub. And try as the cinematographers of these 2000s production could, you just can’t have the same honesty with digital filmmaking.

My Bloody Valentine takes advantage of that by going the other way: it indulges in that vanguard of 2009 cinema, the very same year as Coraline and Avatar. It indulges in 3D, thereby allowing us to refer to this remake as My Bloody Valentine 3D for the remainder of this review to distinguish it from the original Canadian picture.

Which to be fair, Todd Farmer and Zane Smith’s screenplay (with a credit given to Stephen Miller for story) does quite a lot to try to pull from John Beaird’s original screenplay from 1981 but in overly complicated ways that end up making the plotting of the film at once extremely dizzying. We still certainly have a mining town by the name of Harmony (this time shot around Southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh or Armstrong County with not nearly the amount of edge-of-the-world coastline personality that Sydney Mines brought to the original film) and we do have an inciting accident that traps five miners with a single homicidal survivor by the name of Harry Warden (played by either Richard John Walters or Chris Carnel), sans the added sensationalist treatment of cannibalism (this time Warden killed the men simply to preserve more oxygen for himself). This time, however, the writers decide to cut out the middleman and make our ostensible young protagonist the worker whose negligence led to the methane explosion that caused the tragedy, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles, the first of the two stars of the show Supernatural that amusingly starred in a slasher remake in early 2009; Jared Padalecki would follow his lead into Friday the 13th the very next month). Hanniger happens to be the son of the mine’s owner, a little bit of nepotism that evidently got him into an unqualified position and also probably keeps the entire town from lynching him over their considerable resentment for the tragedy he caused.

Doesn’t stop Harry however, who went into a coma immediately after his rescue only to wake up a year later and massacre his whole hospital wing in search for revenge from Tom. He finds Tom in the middle of a Valentine’s Day party being thrown at the same mine he was originally trapped in, which probably didn’t help his vengeful mood any further as he kills every teenager he runs into at the party: it’s only through Warden’s single-minded hunt for Tom that Tom’s girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King), their friend Axel (Kerr Smith), and Axel’s girlfriend Irene (Betsy Rue) are neglected by the bloodthirsty miner and it’s only by Sheriff Burke’s (Tom Atkins) sudden arrival and shooting of Warden that Tom makes it out by the skin of his teeth.

That funneling of the major plot points of the original My Bloody Valentine gets us barely 20 minutes into My Bloody Valentine 3D – partly because the mining accident is mostly registered by a montage of ridiculous newspaper headlines during the opening credits – and yet it still doesn’t hasn’t yet re-used of the love triangle from the original movie. For you see ten years later (a fact humorously communicated by a voiceover newscast saying “it’s been nearly ten years” EXACTLY when “Ten Years Later…” fades in on an aerial shot of the Kittanning Citizens Bridge), Tom came back after being gone since the attack to ostensibly sell the mine now that his father is dead and finds that Sarah is now married to Axel with a son (it is frankly laughable that Tom’s father is not at all a presence in the movie to substantiate his daddy issues, only appearing in the form of his ashes container. Sarah and Axel’s son is barely more of a presence with a frustratingly contrived moment of menace towards him that does not pay off). Meanwhile, Axel happens to be Harmony’s Sheriff and that leaves him in charge of investigating the horrifying murders that coincidentally started just when Tom arrived back into town: murders commit by somebody resembling Harry Warden in their miner’s getup and pickaxe weapon of choice.

Honestly, the structuring of this story makes it feel like the makers wanted to frame this as remake AND pseudo-sequel of the original (including the fact that one of the final shots in the 10 years ago prologue resembles the very last shot of the original movie, watching a wounded Miner retreat into the darkness of the mines). This is not the only area where Farmer and Smith’s script gets way to convoluted to find the long way around recycling the same story, but I don’t think you need to dive that much further into its weirdly shallow psychology of characters who are ostensibly grown ass adults with domestic lives and matured experiences still acting like teenagers to see just how frustratingly poorly put-together it all is. Frankly, My Bloody Valentine 3D is not a good movie by any metric: contrived writing only being the tip of the iceberg when faced with the extremely CW level acting talent (and it’s not like the original actors playing TJ, Sarah, and Axel were all that much better but at least they still lend a genuine humble presence to the small-town that these soap opera-esque leads just can’t meet), and Lussier as a director just does not have any sophistication or inspiration to offer to a sequence that does not take feature gore or 3D, especially obvious when it comes to the moments that rely particularly on tension… character-based tension worst of all.

But fortunately this IS a gore-filled movie and it IS one that’s in 3D. And I am sorry to suggest to anyone that this movie mirrors Lussier’s lack of offering to anybody who attempts to watch it in 2D, but that is certainly the case. Yet the 3D is absolutely the element that keeps me coming back to My Bloody Valentine 3D in the way that it happily indulges in any possible moment to have blood splash every which way through the screen or put us in the perspective of one of the murderous Miner’s victims so we’re consistently watching the pointy end of that threatening pickaxe jam right in front of us. Sometimes both at the same time as in an early moment where we watch the pickaxe-through-the-back-of-the-head-popping-out-an-eye kill from the original movie lovingly recreated as a little peek-a-boo moment that gets me giddy as a schoolboy when I see it. In fact, to My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s credit, a lot of kill styles get their own reenactment in this remake just for the sake of having Lussier, cinematographer Brian Pearson, and stereographer Max Penner play around with how to give it a smiling kitschy to its visceral imagery. It’s not like the revolutionary work of Avatar here but instead whole-heartedly treating 3D as the sort of gimmickry that it was back in the 1950s and that honestly seems the perfect sort of marriage to the purely junky motivations of the slasher genre to begin with. It also allows for even the most blatantly computer generated of the bloodiness to be forgivable in how the 3D gives the chintzy look more artistry on top of feeling more fun.

And that fun is something that My Bloody Valentine 3D gets to accomplish without falling into that oh too popular trap of being winking or self-aware. Sure, Lussier and company know they’re making trash and even lean quite into it with an extended rampage in a seedy motel that largely involves Rue spending most of her total screentime running around a parking lot wearing absolutely nothing but high heels (credit very much to Rue for being so bold; less credit to Farmer for writing himself a short bit part as the guy who she has sex with at the beginning of her commando run here) but they’re still taking it seriously and sincerely without the slightest hint of parody. The bones of the story obviously don’t earn that seriousness (and at around 10 minutes longer than the original, I even start to get exhausted at that po-faced mystery shit and the predictable direction it’s going before it ends), but I don’t go to this genre for narrative indulgences – just purely for exhibition of cheesy carnage and the 3D extravaganza and I like to imagine I’ve made clear how well this has delivered on both so that the 3D Blu-Ray has just ended up one of my guilty pleasure comfort foods. You’re not going to see what I see if you try to watch it in 2D. I am unashamed to say that My Bloody Valentine 3D does not need to function at any aspect to justify that placement – and it does not, it is admirable and dedicated but still a complete piece of shit movie – just as long as it gives me the satisfaction of watching a pickaxe point at me through somebody’s perforated skull more than once.

*I have not watched the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street since its release (which may be soon to change – I just finished a Friday the 13th binge, why not initiate a Nightmare binge?) and I will refrain from making a declaration on that one.

Come Back Again to Here Knows When

You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.

Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).

Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.

And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.

Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.

Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.

These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.

And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.

*Funny enough, the owners of the mine where the film was shot ended up cleaning it before the production team arrived, to their absolute dismay. The set had to be filthied up proper to fit the ominous ambience that Mihalka and the producers were aiming for. Still there’s a big difference between a fake mine stage and a real one that maybe had to have some makeup put on it.
**One of the more grim murder sequences, whose aftermath we still see and frankly resembles a similarly cut up sequence from the same year’s Friday the 13th Part 2, is believed by Mihalka to be lost forever and so he accepts the restored uncut versions as the closest to his vision.

Make It Rain

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I haven’t seen any of the Sharknado films*, but the vibe I get is that it’s self-aware in a smug way and trying too hard to appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. And that strikes me as obnoxious and unaware of what makes the appeal of a movie that’s so-bad-it’s-good: it’s not that the movie’s aren’t trying to be good on the assumption of a camp factor they haven’t earned, but that they are trying so damn hard that we can’t help admiring their chutzpah. It’s the same sort of vibe I get from Samurai Cop 2 casting Tommy Wiseau as its villain. You don’t cast Tommy Wiseau without trying to cheat your way into camp cinema cred and I apologize to the memory of Samurai Cop as a film I hold dear to my heart, but I didn’t feel like bothering with its 24-year-later successor.

I almost got the fear early into The Hurricane Heist, Rob Cohen’s latest action thriller. It was very quickly relieved by the fact that the same thing that made me wonder if they’re going to try too hard also made my friend and I laugh our heads off in the theater.

It was a CGI skull superimposed in the middle of a hurricane sky.

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You see, Cohen is not new to making trash movies that have somehow turned into fine ironic entertainment. His very last film before this was the tawdry teacher-student sex film The Boy Next Door and my, would that have been quite a hit in the 1990s. Instead it’s a diamond in the rough of 2015**. And it’s hard to believe the people involved in that film were oblivious to the sheer lunacy of their screenplay but there wasn’t a shred of detachment from the execution of that film without letting the audience in on the fun as well. The Hurricane Heist is probably also aware of how utterly dumb it is, but it doesn’t want that to stop you from coming for some sincerely ridiculous “watch it with your friends while drunk” material, starting from that CGI skull (and let me tell you, this is not the last time we will see it).

The skull hurricane happened to be terrorizing the huddled children Will and Breeze Rutledge shortly after witnessing their father being killed by debris in a heavy Category 5. The incident left a distinct impact in each of them as they grew up into Alabama Good Ol’ Boys: Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) has become a functioning alcoholic taking care of their pops’ electrician garage, the only thing he has left to remember his pop. Will (Toby Kebbell) has become vengeful enough against the forces of nature to become a meteorologist who drives a high-tech version of the Tumbler from the Dark Knight movies. Will spend his whole runtime functioning as a harbinger of doom for the latest storm kicking up in the way of his hometown, declaring it pre-emptively as an off-the-charts Category 5 and trying to convince his headstrong brother to evacuate with the rest of the city.

This just happens to coincide with the treasury drop-off of $600 million set to be shredded, looked over by haunted agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace) and her zen Irish partner Connor Perkins (Ralph Ineson). Casey just wants to get these done quickly to prove herself capable of handling official responsibilities again, Connor’s calm demeanor has something to do with the fact that he planned to use this opportunity to rob the Treasury of that doomed money with no intent of harming a single individual in the building. And so he enacts his plan almost immediately and while there is little understanding as to whether or not he was aware he planned this theft in the middle of a huge-ass hurricane, he was definitely aware that Casey was no longer in the building as she went off to grab Breeze so he can repair the Treasury building’s generator.

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I say again, Connor was aware that Casey was no longer in the building and thus not among the hostages his heist team rounded up. And yet he still started his plan without that important detail. Shenanigans lead to Casey returning with Breeze to a welcome of gunfire in the stormy grey rain. While Casey is able to evade capture, Breeze is apprehended and forced to work on the generator so that Connor’s hacker couple, Sasha and Frears (Melissa Bolona and Ed Birch), can continue their hacking into the vault. Connor also needs Casey’s IPad to open it, which we as an audience are aware he simply needs to dig into, like, an inch of shredded bills to find. Y’know, Connor may not have figured his plan all the way through.

The overly complex presentation of a story that does not need to be this damn complex is only one layer where The Hurricane Heist brings joy to my heart. There are wild creative decisions all around, like the fact that Sasha and Frears are dressed like this is a night at the club or Will’s constant response to a physical threat by the robbers by using the strong tropical winds in his favor. At one point, he just throws a bunch of hubcaps down wind with unconflicted success in impaling several of Connor’s gang with them. At another instance, he swears to Casey they’re safe using sports equipment to remain tethered to a mall while their assailants are sucked into the focused cyclone. Meanwhile, Casey and Will are fucking SLAMMING onto the building’s roof and don’t die somehow. This movie does not give a damn about the physics except insofar as they could provide a ridiculous outlet for Will to thwart the villains without having to use a gun.

Meanwhile, this is also a movie very much aware of the fact that it’s set in Alabama despite being shot in Sofia, Bulgaria and not having a single Southern American in its main cast. The artificiality of the film’s Southern identity is like a wall for it to smash through. The sole yankee is Grace and everybody else is just doing their best mock-up of a shit-kicking cowboy. Except Ineson, but IS doing an understated imitation of an Irish accent and that’s the most sedate part of his performance. His brilliantly tragic work in The Witch would have convinced anyone he’s above this sort of work, but Ineson just doesn’t care: he’s channeling Nicolas Cage-esque tension, repeating unconvincingly that he’s not a violent individual before cursing and snarling at everyone that his plans are ruined including, yeah, at one point cursing the Hurricane face-to-face (again, this character does not appear to be smart).

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Nobody else gets close to Ineson’s level, though Ben Cross from that most Southern of films, Chariots of Fire, tries playing every inch of a ruthless hick sheriff stereotype. And Kebbell is just about the source of any possible urgency the film has, constantly having a look on his face like whatever he’s about to do is a terrible idea but doing it anyway because the movie says so. It’s only more amusing that the points where the film’s pace slow down most are “character moments” between Will and Casey as they give a heart to heart while urinating outside IN THE MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE or take a lunch break to discuss the distinction between peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches WHILE WILL’S BELOVED BROTHER IS IN DANGER.

I mean, it sounds contradictory to say that this film is proud of its own stupidity but I can’t help feeling like Cohen and company saw the potential to take this film off the rails and took it. And while its craft is not the stuff of masters, Cohen’s editor Niven Howie is certainly intent on presenting the action in a manner that can accidentally wow the right sort of viewer. This is an ambitious movie: one that wants explosions, dwarfing storm clouds, overwhelming overcast rains, destroyed models wherever it can fit them (showing Cohen’s heart is in the best place), and climactic truck chase involving the heroes jumping between them like they’re in a Western. And probably most ambitious of all: this is a film that presents the utopian concept of southern folk who are explicitly proud supporters of climate change theory AND the second amendment.

I wish one of those things was characters shooting guns at the hurricane to stop it, but we can’t have everything. Sometimes, it just takes the simpler things in life to satisfy me.

*Holy shit, there are 6 of them bitches.
**Not to imply that 2015 wasn’t an amazing year for movies because it actually was.

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The Final Level

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There’s some kind of consensus going around that producer Berry Gordy’s 1985 Motown martial arts vehicle The Last Dragon is a movie that’s only possibly enjoyable in an ironic sense. Its status as a cult classic is uncontested, yet it maintains a low critical score on Rotten Tomatoes at 44% (audience score is significantly higher at 86%) and is considered by critics as respected as Leonard Maltin as “strictly kid-stuff”.

And I’m just here to say that’s straight up fucking bullshit.

There are to be fair more than a few flaws and faults of The Last Dragon as a motion picture, but I think it’s massively outweighed by just how much entertainment value it has overall and the different ways it functions as such – as cheesy martial arts inspirational movie, as relentless and genuine 80s time capsule (especially pre-Giuliani New York City), as African-American representation. And it doesn’t function as those things individually in a perfect way, but altogether it’s a singular object of grin-forcing fun.

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And it gets that way because Gordy and director Michael Schultz approached the film’s production and style no differently than that of a music video. Apparently they did not wanting a single frame to be empty of something to show off and resulting in a film always energized with lights and motion, arguably at the cost of consistent narrative or thematic depth but that’s not rare in 1980s cinema to begin with and it don’t bother me none. The very beginning of the film is shot like an Olympic commercial, focusing on the shape and power of young martial artist Taimak. It’s all slow-motion backlit swift and controlled karate moves, the kind you want to linger on when you intend for the subject to be a remembered star — punctuated by Taimak’s real-life chopping of an arrow in mid-flight. An action force to be reckoned with is introduced to us and then we see how he is housed in the body of the boyish naive Leroy Green under the guidance of a master (Thomas Ikeda) who insists that Leroy is finally ready to move on beyond his training in achievement of the Final Level, at which point Leroy will receive The Glow. That last part is kind of hard to parse out to be honest, but it seems to be an achievement akin to Super Saiyan status.

In any case, he sends Leroy on his way to explore the concrete jungle of New York City in which they reside on his own and the first thing the now lost Leroy decides to do is his favorite pastime of catching Bruce Lee movies at the local 42nd street theater. Which is one of the ways The Last Dragon incorporates reflexivity unknowingly, the way that Leroy looks up to Lee and watches the O’Hara fight in Enter the Dragon with rapt attention and wonder at Lee’s abilities without the slightest distraction from the characteristically New York-ian raucous crowd surrounding him – it’s the most effective way to tell us how much the character wants to be Lee in a film where we hear him referred to directly as “Bruce Leroy” and respected because of his adherence to the discipline of the martial arts, enough to operate his own dojo in Harlem. That The Last Dragon also has some Orientalist bent in the third act including twists that are extremely ungenerous and feel mean-spirited, given how much that culture inspires and animates its very hero. Not to mention, it’s always a kindred joy to have a movie hero that loves movies just as passionately as the viewer.

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There’s another sort of style that animates the film and that’s simply the music. Almost given as much screentime as Leroy’s Chinese inspirations is the apparent MTV-esque video music show 7th Heaven hosted by gorgeous VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) and Gordy and Schultz use that as the perfect opportunity to shove in a few music videos from the Motown label including Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, which is the biggest nostalgia kick for me. 7th Heaven as a set alone is glimmering and flashy and shiny in such a loud 80s nightclub type of way, filled with dizzying mirrors sets and lasers, that it feels just at home for the impromptu pop setpieces that Vanity performs as an interlude to all the combat. And of course that’s to say nothing of the hilarious “Dirty Books”, a deliberately awful attempt at the vapidest New Wave knock-off you could find, performed by the lovable Faith Prince and with a gaudy bedroom set and even gaudier costumes for Prince to wear, basically literal trash attempting very transparently to pass off as fashion but completely betraying that it’s a traffic sign sewn over her butt and hazard lights over her breasts.

Between all of this, it’s no surprise that Def Jam Recordings later recruited Schultz for their own classic Hip Hop Artists musical vehicle Krush Groove (released later in the same year). Schultz also happened to direct Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the closest predecessor in his career to a movie this music-based and so I’m mortified by the possibility that that atrocity could have inspired Gordy to hire Schultz for this movie but hey… we got The Last Dragon out of it and hot damn does it pay off in extravagance, musical number-wise and action setpiece-wise (I’m not really surprising when I say the Glow does make an appearance and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like and it is chintzy and awesome to see in action).

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“Dirty Books” is more or less the element that ignites the closest thing The Last Dragon could call a plot as Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), the gangster girlfriend to Prince’s character Angela, attempts continuously to blackmail and threaten Laura into playing the video on 7th Heaven only to be thwarted again and again by Leroy’s happening at the right place at the right time (and each time Laura’s infatuation with him grows to the anxiety of the clearly inexperienced Leroy). Eventually, it gets to a point where Arkadian decides to escalate his battle with Leroy to using the big gun and… well, by that point, we’ve already met the big gun but I held off until the very end to give one of my favorite characters of all time a proper introduction.

Arkadian, despite being more rooted in the plot, is not the main antagonist. No, our main antagonist is introduced in that same 42nd street theater we see Leroy watch Enter the Dragon in and immediately starts ripping the scenery apart with his angry jaws. He’s loud and bombastic, maintaining a tall stance and a twisted snarl on his face that telegraphs how clearly antagonistic the character is without making him any less fun to watch. He spits an exhaustive amount of quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “You just get that sucker to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment!” with dedicated oversold menace barely hiding how much joy he gets quipping like that. And every moment he’s on-screen is a highlight of The Last Dragon. For all it banks on personalities – especially given how easily Vanity plays celebrity seductress in a surprisingly clean way, I think she kind of needs more credit for that performance – the late, great Julius Carry gifts us with a personality that adopts the aggressive belligerence of 80s New York City to the unapologetic hamminess of movie villany from his wild hair to his loose black-and-red (the colors of EVIL!) gi. If there’s any one reason you need to watch The Last Dragon right this second (and there are many), it is this character.

Is he the meanest? Is he the prettiest? Is he the baddest mofo low down around this town? Well who is he? Who is he? He can’t hear you…

SHO’NUFF.

The Shogun of Harlem.

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25 for 25 – We Accept the Challenge to Fight and Never Lose.

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This movie is going to be a conglomeration of things I had earlier explored and now bring full circle. I already came down on some of the best of Canadian cinema – as provided by the National Film Board itself. Even earlier, I took a look at some slasher culture. And even earlier than that came the look at movies that I deemed part of my fascinating trinity of inadequately produced ego trips, with our particular subject today flat-out mentioned as the last end of that. There was Miami Connection which was essentially Y.K. Kim’s attempt to leave a wise self-gravitas-granting message of peace and love sincere yet completely contradictory to its violent content. There was The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s warped and twisted life fantasy that allegedly provides him with a blanket of company he couldn’t find or reasonably match in his film that gave him lifetime adoration that may not be what he’s looking for. And now, we close that trinity off with Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (although it is credited within the film as The Edge of Hella title much less descriptive and absolutely not applicable at all to the film it is attached to). Now, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is much shallower than the previous films in its intentions. Produced and written by its star Jon Mikl Thor (the director John Fasano mainly had his career as a script doctor) – a Canadian bodybuilding Mr. USA and Mr. Canada champion who later took a dip into heavy metal music under the his last name as the mononymous Thor – The Legendary Rock Warrior! – all Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare really wants or tries to do is make Thor look really awesome and cool and badass.

It does not make him look cool or badass. It frankly makes him look silly.

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That is obviously bound to happen when your film starts with the bloodless death of a family by an unseen evil monster from the kitchen oven in their apparent farm home in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario. Following such an underwhelming overlit, broad daylight “massacre” of footage with the title card The Edge of Hell is very confident of them. And then once the credits are done, inexplicably, a band and their girlfriends somehow deciding this farm was a good place to record their new album and develop material for themselves despite the very obvious Horrible Over Monster Event That Happened Ten Years Prior to the Movie Proper (which just makes me think of how Trent Reznor made The Downward Spiral in the house where Helter Skelter happened and the sensationalism behind it kind of spills over to this) and Thor (the character is actually named Triton, but it’s so much easier for me to square with Thor as a character himself)’s trying to tell us Toronto is a culturally nourishing place to be making arts at. They’re not in Toronto. They’re on a farm that ain’t Toronto. Might be close to it geographically, but…

Anyway, the band also brings their girlfriends because this is essentially trying to be a slasher film and so we need gratuitous scenes of attempted shower sex while the actors waltz right into that shower in an insanely cartoonish amount of make-up making them look like extras from a Whitesnake video only randomly pulled together for the most softcore porn video you could ever imagine. Hell, most of the things this band does are pretty clean for 80s metal stars, they put in a good name for hair metal after Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization portrays all the sexual promiscuity and drugs in the culture, but heck away these guys just wanna make music and be with their own girls.

And my word… the music is catnip to a bad hair metal deviant like I. Hair metal is emblematic of nearly everything I think is silly and stupid about the 1980s and why I’m so lucky to have missed out on it. Big and loud and monotonous, but running like the train that could in high voices screeching voices and obviously Scorpions and Ratt inspired guitar riffs. And they’re earwormy in the worst ways, like hook worms, bruh. Every once in a while, “We Accept the Challenge” and “Energy” keep popping over and over in my head and I need the tunes from Miami Connection to save me.

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By the way, I’m not bothering elaborating on the characters or cast names beyond Thor because much as I ironically love Rock n Roll Nightmare, it’s a movie so bad I’d rather retain my dignity by only affording it cursory research because got damn, but from what I understand an unusual amount of it is made up of Assistant Directors. In any case, the only really distinguishable person is the drummer who starts off with the fakest most-Spinal-Tap-sounding Australian accent and somehow it gets dropped halfway through thus making him wholly anonymous amongst the other band members.

Anyway, this being a slasher film, they all get picked off in complete darkness with their deaths usually witnessed by a monsters that looks like color-coded versions of Beaker the muppet, except with an eye removed. There’s never any tension or horror because Fasano is simply not a good filmmaker with this roaming around and Thor clearly didn’t shell out too much for his glamor flick, but even if this were a well-shot and edited film… how on Earth can you see these creatures and not laugh? Are these the motherfuckers that were in the oven? What were they doing there?

Well, I’ll tell you what they are and this is unfortunately going to be SPOILER ALERT for a film that you’re probably better off EXPERIENCING THIS FIRST HAND so if you can hunt a copy of Rock n Roll Nightmare (which frankly tough for me but doable), GET ON IT.

But for those who stay….

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The events of this movie didn’t happen. It is a punch-drunk version of Six Characters In Search of an Author. Nobody who died (apparently not even the ten years ago family) ever really existed except as creations of Triton, an archangel, in order to lure and entrap the killer The Devil (or maybe the exhaustive laundry list of names Triton elaborates on when they finally come face to face) so that Triton can grab his 30 dollar Halloween decoration looking ass (which he seriously does look like the most expensive prop in the whole movie. Definitely less expensive than the metal makeup. And yet cheaper than my work shoes.) and bring him back to hell. And obviously this does not happen without a heavy metal battle, so while the music by the band never existed blasts as Thor suddenly Super Saiyans himself and wrassles with those Beaker muppets attaching themselves to his swollen pecs as he struggles.

It gets at its most pathetic Triton explains he was inspired by slasher movies as though he knew only the Devil could possibly be a fan of them. It’s an attempt to be self-reflexive that ends up having the movie trip and fall all over its face. And the moralistic (?) Christianity probably explains why the hair metal band is all into clean monogamous drug-free fun rather than actually acting like Poison or Warrant. Anyway, it’s ambitious of Thor, that’s for sure and the fact that he wanted himself to be at the center of this is hella braver than punching the Devil right in the face.

This is why I love the movie so much as trash and am willing to show it to as many people as possible. It’s insane, it’s bizarre, and it’s all in some shallow way that’s much less demanding than the psychoanalysis that seems imperative with movies like The Room and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And now that I wrote it out, maybe it does make Thor look cool now that I think of it. I wish I could look that constipated wrassling muppets.

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25 for 25 – What a Story, Mark

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I don’t know if other cinephiles ever have these humbling moments where somebody out of any corner of film watcher-dom introduces a film or culture that has clearly made a bold and big impact on the cinematic world that I had no idea was in existence and makes me rush to find out what it is. They still happen often and often, but the biggest one in my life was right when I was starting college in 2010 and hours after my arrival to Phoenix, my roommate tells me about the already seven-years-old and long in the middle of its cult phenomenon (hell, by that point it already had a video game made of it) The Room, made by the enigmatic fellow of Tommy Wiseau. And man, my roommate was REALLY selling this movie to the point of going through a plot synopsis of the movie in the middle of dinner with my dad at IHop and making me watch the Nostalgia Critic review.

I have since seen the movie 3 times – first with friends indulging in the cult actions of throwing spoons and such, then with Wiseau present on his “Love Is Blind” tour, and then after finishing The Disaster Artist (the infamous book by co-star and line producer Greg Sestero that elaborates on the production history of the film) – and all with an utter and immediate fascination that promised I’d be watching it another time. This is quite unorthodox because The Room is widely known as one of the worst movies to ever be made.

And it quite frankly lives up to that reputation every time.

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Just by looking at the synopsis of the movie is a Herculean task to parse out a straightforward premise. You can get to the center of the film, being that writer Wiseau (who also is the director, producer, and star of the film, but more on that later) wanted to craft a love triangle in the center between Johnny (Wiseau), a successful banker who is beloved by everybody around him and surrounded by friends, his fiancee Lisa (Juliette Daniel) who is bored by the idyllic life that Johnny provides for her, and Johnny’s mysterious best friend Mark (Sestero) who begins an affair with Lisa despite his utter disgust with his actions. Soap opera stuff, not entirely the sort of thing that holds up a 100 minute feature.

Then there’s the hodge-podge of non-sequitors and tangeants that have absolutely no weight on that primary plot, from the infamous subplot of Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) famously declaring her diagnosis of breast cancer before never bringing the matter up ever again, to the childlike Denny (Philip Haldiman) getting in debt-related trouble with the aggressive drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian). Perhaps Wiseau felt these sort of random events are reflective of how real throws things at you (I once had an acquaintance suggest a movie with the same sort of narrative logic as The Room and have avoided him appropriately), perhaps he just wanted to fill 99 minutes, perhaps he just keeps forgetting to delete all scenes related to whatever subplot. In any case, any possible sense of reality, sense, or logic in Wiseau’s screenplay is vacuumed and leaves something like an unfunny Adult Swim episode. These characters and their dialogue don’t sound like anything other than what Wiseau’s concept of how humans behave, and given Wiseau’s presence on-screen as the lead, it’s easy to see how Wiseau has trouble understanding human behavior. His presence seems like a desperate attempt to mimic it and it is an utter failure on that front.

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Everybody else in the cast seems to be desperately trying to sell whatever nonsensical word salad Wiseau mandates for them to do and it’s admirable, although I’m not sure we would be having any great performances out of them even if the lines made sense. Some are overly intense and out of the zone of the movie like Janjigian or Greg Ellery (in his one appearance), some are kind creepy in their sedateness like Haldiman, the only truly relaxed and casual cast member seems to be Minnott without a real care in her life about being embarrassed by Wiseau telling her to demand her daughter get her “hot buns in here”. Is it truly fair for me to judge a cast forced in this position?

I guess not because in the end everything is controlled by Wiseau and I guess I may as well confront my attitude towards The Room here and now. It’s not only how utterly collapsed The Room is narratively or aesthetically (the movie went through three different cinematographers and they all supply the same flat lighting that wouldn’t run for a made-for-TV movie on chilly designed production of rooftops, flower shops – “Hi doggy!” – and apartments), but how it is the only lens we get to the mind and life of Wiseau, alongside a Hulu series he made called The Neighbors which I have no intention of watching. I am not the first or even the last person who will claim that The Room is one of the most auteur-driven pictures of all time and I can’t see how this is deniable to anybody based on Wiseau not only had his hands on every major lever of the production, but how he is the most involved person on-screen. I kind of hold that is irrefutable proof that while the auteurist theory is a sensible map onto reading the works of a film artist, it’s not the end-all be-all way to validate a filmmaker’s output as irrevocably good, as people tend to do these days with the works of “vulgar auteurism” such as Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, refuting flaws and tossing the words “masterpiece”. It makes movies worth talking about, not worth praise. For The Room is very much a movie worth talking about, but not remotely worthy of praise.

And to dig deep into that psyche of why The Room would be worth those things, for one thing it’s lonely. The amount of adoration Johnny is surrounded by and how he’s so very much a source of support and help to every single person in his life (see how he valiantly dispatches of Chris-R or how he lets Denny down gently when Denny expresses lust for Lisa), it’s unrealistic to the point of fantasy. It’s like a twisted version of the memories from the Rick and Morty episode with mind-worms acting as imaginary friends, there’s only happiness, no conflict except from those devious ones, which leads to my second declaration about The Room. It’s very misogynistic in a shallow way, a representation of the sort of nightmare “nice guy” MRAs picture when a woman is given oh so very much everything and yet still selfishly goes behind her significant other’s back because it’s fun. And look how much it ruins Johnny*, look how he l– wait, no he’s always looked like that sort of ghost with a oily mop on his head, but look at how much Lisa tears him apart and how callous she is to his pain and support. Together, it only paints a sad portrait of Tommy Wiseau only desperately wanting to be loved, even through all the footballs being flung and the inhuman visual and verbal language. The inability to represent human interaction in any realistic way only further shows how distanced Wiseau is from having that sort of interaction nourish his life.

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That’s the sort of desperation that sets a work like Miami Connection apart from The Room, despite both essentially being ego-trips. One is simply out of positivity and excitement, the other is negative and desperate. One is full of color and liveliness, the other is set in a catalog-ready apartment for the majority of its runtime.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Wiseau’s not that sad as a person. Maybe he’s actually had a rich and filling life (and I am avoiding Sestero’s recollections in The Disaster Artist in this dissection, I’m only pulling from The Room itself) surrounded by loved ones. But that’s kind of the thing about film, it’s an art like any other and so it functions really as an extension of the artist. It’s a two-way communication between the author (whoever that is) and the audience and this is the sort of Tommy Wiseau that the man has opted to introduce to us (my reading is hardly deep, I think. It’s not even particularly profound on my part). And that makes The Room only all the more interesting to me as a feature film, in a way validating the ability of film to unlock many of the secret thoughts or desires of a being even when everything else may go wrong.

And The Room is, in the end, the epitome of everything going wrong.

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*I wanna note something… that was the SECOND time I accidentally typed “Tommy” instead of “Johnny” and had to go back and fix it. Take from that what you will.

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25 for 25 – TAE! KWON! DO!

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Miami Connection has everything I could absolutely adore about a movie, it’s a dream come true for me. Martial Arts Action, a pleasant cast of diverse characters, a happening scene full of lively extras, musical numbers by a rock band heavily indebted to the 80s (for that is where it takes place and was filmed), irrefutable evidence that the 80s were a ridiculous era for anything, contrary to its title it does not take place in Miami (a city I have little love for), ninjas, samurai swords, fighting gangs, anti-drug message, beach scenes, nightclubs, optimistic inspiration on all fronts…

… and not an iota of this movie is good. It’s actually pretty terrible. An incompetent film on all fronts, especially notable in the acting, rightfully lambasted by critics and audiences for its whiplash unintentional tonal shifts, its inability to carry even a milligram of gravity in its drama, oh and so many other massive faults but I am indeed getting ahead of myself. My point in the first paragraph is that as a child, I would not possibly have been the best judge of entertainment – having loved Van Helsing and Freddy vs. Jason – and so I probably would have had Miami Connection being one of my favorite movies if I were growing up.

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The plot is definitely the sort of concept that would have to excite me as a child: Dragon Sound is one of the hottest bands in S. Florida, made up of a group of orphan Taekwondo experts who go to the University of Central Florida. Still their popularity has been getting in the way of a rival band (that’s never named by still a central figure) and guitarist John (Vincent Hirsch)’s  relationship with backup singer Jane (Kathie Collier) has earned the ire of her brother Jeff (William Ergle), the leader of a gang that deals cocaine supplied by the Miami Ninja – a gang made up of Ninjas. It doesn’t just sound like a Cannon film, it sounds like a parody of a Cannon film and I ate those the hell up as a kid.

But I didn’t have a chance to see it growing up. Indeed, nobody had quite seen it en masse until earlier this decade, save for the film’s screening at the Cannes Film Market in 1987 in a fruitless search for a distributor before a very small eight-theater screening only in the Greater Orlando area a year later spreading into Melbourne, Daytona Beach, and (most curiously) West Germany. It fell into obscurity quickly until a programmer at Alamo Drafthouse famously screened the film randomly after winning a 35mm print on an eBay bid and after the screening received a positive response from the viewers, the recently created distributive chain from the theater Drafthouse Films fought tooth and nail to convince the film’s producer and co-director Y.K. Kim (who also starred as the leader of Dragon Sound and co-guitarist Mark), apprehensive after being burned from the production and release of the film, to allow them to re-release it to a reception loud enough to give the film a loving cult following. And thus, I’ve only been able to see it as an adult and yet nevertheless… it remains a favorite of mine despite full knowledge of its wanting quality.

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It’s crazy that a movie would not ask me to meet it halfway for unintentional comedy (something I often found to be somewhat laboring) with an attempt at an acting showpiece with the keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith) tearfully delivering an overwrought and painfully expository (especially in specifying his half-Korean descent) monologue on searching for his lost father and the very tightly-wound Ergle delivering my favorite line delivery in the film, astounded by the concept that his sister could have a social life that he barks in confusion “A FRIEND?!” at Jane’s introduction of John. And yet Miami Connection is that, hamfisting its eagerness for a positive message to the audience with songs about being good to friends (“Friends”) or fighting against violence… however that works (“Against the Ninja”, let alone the infamous line about “stupid cocaine”). And given that the direct mouthpiece of this message is Kim himself as the author (alongside co-director Randall Park who also conceived of the film with him), suddenly it takes on a similar vein than the likes of Rock n’ Roll Nightmare or The Room, which both seemed to share a sort of vanity project ego trip for their own respective author-stars (Jon Mikl Thor and Tommy Wiseau respectively). Which… holy shit, maybe those two should be on this 25 for 25 series as well*.

But whereas The Room seems to come from a place of Wiseau desperately wanting to validate his self-esteem and Lord knows what the fuck Rock n’ Roll Nightmare comes from (maybe to have Thor fight muppets in Super Saiyan form like he’s always wanted to), Y.K. Kim – a local celebrity in Orlando for his martial arts teachings, being a Korean immigrant success story, and other deeds – seems to come from a place of true passion and want to give to the community and his students (many of whom make up the cast) a document of optimism and wholesome values, incorporating education, sobriety, and sincerity into the drama. And Miami Connection defies us to laugh at the ridiculous presentation of these issues, but it does not take them with levity and that means knowing what it means to Kim and the characters. And after all who COULD in the end disagree with such themes deep inside unless they were wholly miserable (hence why I don’t trust people who talk shit about the movie)?

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Miami Connection is a fascinating dance between outrageously poor craftsmanship in its overlit shots, discontinuous unrhythmed editing (both provided by the late Maximo Munzi, who apparently had a long and full career of over 100 films, after kicking off with L.A. Streetfighters and Miami Connection which is a miracle to me, though nothing else of note stands out from his list), and awkward leadfooted acting from every actor, all providing an energy that lifts up the positivity, even in spite of such insanely hypocritical bloodshed and violence in the finale. When the action comes, it only ramps up the insane energy rather than bring it down with eyes popping in the characters’ expressions of rage and the outrageous bloodletting for the final battle, by all the good people forgiving all the other good people for fighting because they had to and ending on a final title card “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace”. Oh, what absolute fun.

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Fun. That’s what the film brought to me. It told me that cinema’s not always about looking for what’s a masterpiece or a mouthpiece for your views or even to introduce you to something new, but something that brings such a visceral basic response from your body above all else and Miami Connection brings out the most pleasant feeling out of me: I have a lot of fun watching the movie. And I’m not even certain the fun is entirely ironic, that I actually can connect with Y.K. Kim’s level and see how he might thought this would be awesome. Or think back to action and music-hungry young me and think how he might proclaim this is the best movie ever made. You shouldn’t watch it over and over, nor should you watch it by yourself if you can help it. But if you do watch it, it has to be interesting, honest (I mean, how many 80s parodies and homages do we have today with nary the true soul Miami Connection has?), and stimulating on some level for you.

The manner in which I happened to last watch this was another SCS 35mm screening at an early low and anxious point in my life last year, bringing Josh – that Josh again – who had no idea what the movie was about and attending with others who hadn’t seen it before and it was a marvelous moment of good vibrations all around, lifting my spirits as we laughed at the good-natured banality of the whole thing, cheering to see Coral Gables make an appearance as a location, remarking that John looked like a member of the theater audience, and chanting “TAE! KWON! DO!” at the refrain of the song “Against the Ninja”. At the end of the show, Josh couldn’t help remarking that it was awesome and most of the audience loved the experience.

I personally consider it the best experience I’ve had in a movie theater to date. And even if it wasn’t my first viewing of the movie, that’s how Miami Connection will always will stay to me, a movie I watched at the right place and made me happier than I could expect, eager to go fight ninjas and play 80s rock music and not do cocaine.

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*Yes, I have an idea of the trend I want to go, but I haven’t finished (or even started) all 25 reviews so I’m seriously considering The Room and Rock n’ Roll Nightmare for this.


Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner Office

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Somewhere down the line since Home was miraculously able to keep Dreamworks Animation Studios alive at a time when its death seemed so very imminent, somebody up top in the creative sector must have realized “Hey, we have a color and shapes and depth that we can actually play with in our animated work rather than rely on our pop culture references and obnoxious music cues!” The consequence of which we’ve had three of the best-looking animated works they’ve supplied us to date – Kung Fu Panda 3 (still my favorite DWA movie except for maybe How to Train Your Dragon), Trolls, and now 2017’s The Boss BabyThe Boss Baby, not having nearly as much moxie about lighting as Panda or color and camera movements as Trolls, is by a large margin the least interesting-looking of the three but it’s also the most pleasant surprise of them as well. That was going to happen regardless when a movie apparently invented solely on the gimmick of having Alec Baldwin play that cold businessman voice on a baby’s body comes across as halfway distant.

The Boss Baby is surprisingly more than that. It’s a shockingly well-earned narrative on growing up and how small changes to a child as young as 7-year-old Timothy Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi, grandson of the legendary animator Ralph) can be perceived as big things, something director Tom McGrath relishes portraying with the scale of set designs within spaces as small as Tim’s room to as vast as Las Vegas. The animation team ups the size of walls and shadows if Tim is in a bad mood, stretches the depth of field if Tim is feeling distant or isolated, practically shakes the frame with intense chase action setpieces. All with the editing by James Ryan letting us know what Tim sees happening is not necessarily what IS happening without undoing the bigness of Tim’s imagination that we’re spending our time in.

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Which is probably what makes Michael McCullers’ screenplay (adapting Marla Frazee’s children’s picture book, though I do not know how faithful it is an adaptation) get to work so well despite a few logical gaps that go beyond “this is a kid making it up to explain his brother’s existence” and some dodgy dialogue (I have a friend who works in a theater who walked in on the line “Suck it! Don’t you want to know where baby’s come from?” without seeing what’s on the screen and boy that must’ve been uncomfortable for him). McCullers starts simple enough: Tim’s parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) come home suddenly one day with a new baby (Baldwin) who dresses in suits and spends his day plotting a takeover of the parents’ invested love towards the two children. Tim is obviously using this theory to deal with the fact that he’s getting too old for the bedtime stories and that he has a responsibility to take care of his new brother and both Bakshi and Baldwin are great enough voice actors to give this “worlds apart” antagonism that lends the two a believable cadence as siblings but a prickliness to grow into their distrust and hate of each other. That’s when The Boss Baby is at its best, including a surprisingly uninsulting usage of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as an emotional motif. It’s still got its problems – the trailer already warned me of the random audience-ignorant throwback to Baldwin’s famous Glengarry Glen Ross rant and I still rolled my eyes; the movie trades DWA’s soundtrack and pop culture reference M.O. for toilet humor, which is the number one way for me to guess a family film hates kids – but it’s satisfying during that first third of its runtime.

Then there’s the moment it doubles down on what the Boss Baby’s secret mission is, for it is established early on in a fairly cute opening credits sequence depicting a Busby-Berkeley-esque factory for babies to be either sent in the real world or work for Baby Corp. with the consciousness of an adult… and that’s already weird and something that demands a lot more from the audience than you want to do for a children’s film out the gate. Anyway, the deeper Tim and the Boss Baby get into working on that case, the more convoluted the screenplay becomes and the tangle never really gets cleared up until the last 15 minutes when our protagonists are in the wind-down of their accomplishments and trying to remember this is essentially about Tim dealing with his family issues, not whatever the Boss Baby’s career aspirations are meant to be. This is a very labored plot that doesn’t seem to feel that family dynamic is enough to carry the film and while I don’t think it’s wrong, I would have rather it taken a leap of faith on just being Tim vs. The Boss Baby than the direction it went with introducing The Big Boss Baby (Steve Buscemi) as a myth and then an antagonist.

OK, so when I actually look back at the mess that is the plot, my eyes do start to water, but they’re not watering when I look at the roundness of the baby characters (The Boss Baby has a whole squad and this is the closest DWA came to good-looking human animation with how adorable they are shaped) or the brilliant boldness of the fantasy-esque sequences in Baby Corp in all its light, white-set colorings. Nobody expected to hate The Boss Baby more than I did as an uninspired children’s flick without a semblance of fun, but it’s actually just light enough as fluff to make me consider that maybe Dreamworks Animation has been growing better and better. Maybe I won’t even dread the next film they make with this streak they’re on.

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Uncle STinG’s Egyptian Blood Feast Recipe for Y’all

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For the Memory of Herschell Gordon Lewis 15 June 1926 – 2016

The idea of who brought blood and gore to motion pictures is not a certain thing (obviously the milestone moment of Blood Itself making its appearance in a motion picture is Psycho, but talking what movie really didn’t sanitize the matter and really indulged in the violent shades of red), but I can’t think of many people who actually know their way through horror cinema disputing the concept that the credit belongs to “The Godfather of Gore (and Direct Marketing according to his personal website)” Herschell Gordon Lewis. I don’t think the Direct Marketing aspect is an inaccurate self-observation – he didn’t always do horror pictures, but spent all of his career essentially mapping out and following the trends of cinema. What could be made cheap and quick and get some big damn return was on Lewis’ mind, but notably with his early nude pictures.

When the nude pictures were starting to lose their underground appeal, Lewis and his producer collaborator David Friedman jumped straight into horror and reached for the most shocking exploitative usage of gore and blood as they possibly could, selling their pictures on those extremities and forever making their mark in horror film history with their first indulgence in that genre, Blood Feast – a film about a crazed Egyptian slaughtering people to sacrifice to his Ancient Egyptian God. Amongst the bloodiness of its scenes, Blood Feast is also notorious for being the oldest film in the UK DPP’s Video Nasties list – movies prosecuted under their Obscene Publications Act in an attempt to censor them.

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These movies were honestly… not good. None of them. I don’t think Lewis made good movies (nor did he, I think given some of his interviews… especially this one by Juan Barquin for YAM Magazine). Some are among the worst movies I’ve ever seen, like Blood Feast itself. But I think a good amount of them are a joy to watch nevertheless, like Blood Feast again, which I’d recommend to you all right this second as so-bad-it’s-good good damn time. And to be real, I don’t think another filmmaker was able to have such pride in their status as truly meritless shlock in every way it can be considered art. It suggests a charming and down-to-earth personality which, given that here in S. Florida, I know of enough people who have either met (like yours truly) or been good friends with Lewis, can be confirmed by anyone who has encountered him.

And again… when it comes to making the blood fill the screen, most people agree he did it first. Sometimes, you don’t have to do it best.

Anyway, Blood Feast was my real introduction to the filmmaker (as per a marathon of the Blood trilogy held by my former A Night at the Opera co-host Britt Rhuart) and I thought it would be nice to revisit that movie in an urthodox manner. By trying to adapt it as a recipe for a feast akin to what Fuad is preparing for his victims (and with his victims). Nobody can cook it like Lewis, but why not take a look at what makes up the feast from the very beginning?

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INGREDIENTS

  • 10 Gallons of flop sweat from my boy Mal Arnold’s beady eyed forehead heat in the Miami sun playing the buggy Fuad Ramses.
  • Maybe a box of Just For Men on that grey hair on him too. But seriously, man, somebody get Arnold an AC.
  • 30 whole books on Egyptian culture and history. We ain’t gonna read these, we’re gonna burn them. A movie like Blood Feast ain’t got no need for cultural accuracy or correctness. We’re not making goddamn Citizen Kane here.
  • 118 lb.s of white meat named Connie Mason. That’s literally all she will function as… meat. It’s not like she put anything into her performance.
  • Also get some more white meat for the supporting cast surrounding Arnold and Mason, but make sure they literally can’t intone anything to sound human in their whole life. That’s very important.
  • -5 functioning lightbulbs. Like literally buy them and then break them.
  • 7 cans of gold spray paint.
  • 1 department store mannequin to spray that gold on. It will be the classiest thing in the movie.
  • A basketful of hats no living being should be seen wearing for Lyn Bolton.
  • 20 virgins. The movie is classy enough to suggest them as sacrifices and it’s not like it’ll be worse than appearing in this movie.
  • However, you can contain South Florida heat, you fucking get it. And contain it. It’s a necessary ingredient it adds that spicy flavor and that Florida Man tastefulness to it.
  • 10,000 buckets of red paint as crimson as we imagine blood to be in our nightmares.
  • 6 sheeps worth of body parts and organs from eyes to stomach to tongue, not a bit of sheep wasted without being used in the name of art.
  • Really that last ingredient was an understatement, we want all the blood and gore you can give. Not some, dude. ALL of the blood and gore.
  • Also all the red curtains you can get. It’s gonna look like a magic show in the Black Lodge up in this bitch.
  • Y’know what? Grab a canvas too, because this is gonna be a work of art, yo!

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INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Write the lines to the hands of at least one of those sacks of white meat (btw, you should probably refer to them as actors).
  2. Don’t mix those actors together very well, we’re not looking for chemistry at all by any means.
  3. Paint it all black.
  4. Burn down your script.
  5. Mesh all the listed ingredients together and shove it into your over. Heat at the highest you can go and for an indefinite amount of time.
  6. This is probably a good time to state I can’t cook and you shouldn’t listen to me.
  7. Let your house burn down. Don’t walk out of the house. This is fine. This is as insane as the movie is for sure.
  8. Go make the table while you’re at it. Invite your friends, have a bunch of beers, and pizza.
  9. Go watch Blood Feast right now, it’s a good time.

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Farewell, Lewis. Thanks for the meal!

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