Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Director Report Card: Trent Harris (2014)

5. Luna Mesa

Trent Harris is probably the most obscure director I’ve ever discussed. Harris is a Utah-based filmmaker who has never had a commercial hit, whose films are not widely available on home video, but whose visions, ideas, and humor are whacked-out enough that a tiny cult following has formed around him anyway. Despite the lack of exposure, Harris has still managed to release one of his bizarre flicks every few years. His latest, “Luna Mesa,” screened at a few small festivals before Harris made it available through his website a few months back. The director has primarily worked in comedy before. “Luna Mesa” shows Harris moving in a more serious, dramatic, but still experimental direction.

While traveling Cambodia, a young girl named Luna meets an older man, a filmmaker played by Harris himself. The two have a brief affair. After a few months, he is mysteriously shot dead in their hotel room, possibly from a suicide. Luna picks up his notebooks, full of strange poems and pointing arrows, and follows in his footsteps, heading to other countries and meeting new people. Luna’s physical journey soon becomes a spiritual one, as she attempts to move past her grief and fill a hole in her heart.

Many years ago, my enthusiasm for Harris was so great that he was one of the first directors I ever covered for this blog. Looking back on those old reviews, I gave every one of his previous movies an “A” rating. “Luna Mesa” has the director moving in a different direction. It’s funny but in a different way then the buddy comedy yucks of “Rubin & Ed,” the sci-fi goofery of “Plan 10 from Outer Space,” the documentary cringe humor of “The Beaver Trilogy,” and the meta-fictional absurdity of “Delightful Water Universe.” Like that last film, “Luna Mesa” was made for very little money, shot with non-professional actors in exotic, but not flashy, locations all over the world. The movie is no less experimental then his last, including a similar score, opening credits sequence, and do-it-yourself special effects. However, the intent of Harris’ images are different. “Luna Mesa” is more ponderous and existential.

It is also something of a travelogue. The film begins in Cambodia. Before the story is over, Luna travels to Thailand, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mexico, and Sierra Leon. She mingles with the local people and cultures. She takes photographs of tourist destinations, sitting among castles and pyramids. In Mexico, she gets caught up in a Day of the Dead celebration. There are elephants to meet and busy marketplaces to explore. The destinations are interesting and the film takes its time to show them off. If you’re looking for person-on-the-ground perspectives of some far-off locations, “Luna Mesa” certainly provides that. However, too often, the film simply allows itself to wander these places, without much plot or story to keep the audience’s interest.

“Luna Mesa” is light on plot. In her lover’s notebooks, Luna discovers a series of vague notes and arrows pointing in different directions. She follows the directions all over the world, the journey across the globe standing in for the journey in her heart for meaning. This is heavy stuff. While Harris’ previous films have dealt with seemingly light-weight topics like dead cats or Bigfoot, there’s always been an undercurrent of meloncholey and despair to his work. “Luna Mesa” embraces this fully, following a lead character in the grips of an existential crisis. Unfortunately, the movie explores this concept in an unusually vague manner. Harris’ narrates large portions of the run time, his oblique poetry playing over scenes of Luna walking places or the natives doing things. It quickly escalates from interesting to ponderous.

Luna is played by Liberty Valentine, a dancer who has done little acting before this movie. Valentine is attractive in a normal person way. Throughout the film, she wears a few different hair colors. As an actress, she is somewhat vacant. Frequently, she stares around at her surroundings, trying to gleam some deeper meaning from what’s happening to her. The movie doesn’t feature a lot of dialogue but its few conversations are somewhat stilted. However, Valentine occasionally shows a deeper ability as an actress. In her ordinary face, and wide eyes, there’s a sense of wonder and a willingness to discover something new. Befitting a dancer, Valentine also shows a certain physicality that makes her an attractive screen presence. It’s unlikely she’ll pursue a future as an actress but with a few more acting classes, she could develop into a viable talent.

Along the way, Luna meets some interesting people. When a director cast himself as the lover of an attractive woman much younger then him, it brings up certain… Questions. However, Harris’ involvement with the movie is mostly off-screen. He’s got a good radio voice so his voice-over is appreciated. Megan Zimmerman plays Luna’s sister, who calls her on the phone a few times, in a subplot that doesn’t go much of anywhere. Richard Dutcher, a fellow Utah filmmaker, puts in a memorable supporting part as a foul-mouthed expatriate Luna seeks out. Also memorable is Emily Pearson as an important character. To reveal her full role would be a spoiler but Pearson’s world-weary delivery is well utilized in the part.

Nestled in the middle of “Luna Mesa” is a moment that completely derails the entire movie. Luna cracks her lover’s notes and finds his laptop. Inside the computer is a short video. It’s an interview by Harris of the survivor of the Sierra Leon Civil War. We see people being executed by soldiers, shot in the streets, and the charred, burnt, stripped remains of the victims’ bodies. It is real, shocking and disgusting. I’m getting a little queasy just thinking about it. Why Harris inserted this footage into the movie is not too hard to decipher. On her quest for peace, Luna has to see the worst of what humanity can do, in order to forgive herself and everyone else. In practice, the movie in no way justifies inserting real life footage of war atrocities into the middle of its brief, hour-long run time. It’s a short moment, lasting about a minute, but it was enough to sour the whole movie for me.

In its final third, “Luna Mesa” finally collects itself into some sort of stable whole. In the desert of Arizona, Luna comes to peace with her lover’s death. The film enters a different, surreal state of mind. Infographics about the Tachyon Converter and the nature of matter appear on-screen. Luna, wearing a bright orange wig, thigh high boots, and a leather skirt, dances in slow motion through the desert. Letters and symbols dance in the sky. It’s strange, unexpected, and captivating, exactly the type of out-there imagery that Harris is best at. It’s the closest the movie comes to the existential heights it reaches for.

Interestingly, “Luna Mesa” doesn’t end there either. The film makes the interesting choice to keep going for an extended amount of time after the story’s logical end point. Luna wanders onto a goat farm and meets its eccentric owner, played by Harris regular Alex Caldiero. The man and the strange things he says and does is closer to the funny absurdity Harris delivered in his previous films. It adds a lot of humor to the final minutes of the film. Caldiero delivers increasingly odd monologues while Valentine considers their meanings. Among the caves and canals of the desert, she finally finds peace, ending “Luna Mesa” in a thoughtful, satisfyingly emotional place.

Trent Harris wanted to try something different. He wanted to explore the deeper ideas that frequently float under the surface of his films in a more straight-forward manner. You can’t hold that against the guy. However, “Luna Mesa” wanders and wanders, only finding any lyrical or emotional sense of meaning at the very end. To read that the film’s story was cobbled together from ideas, fragments, and non-narrative footage is not exactly surprising. [Grade: C]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 64: Signs of Schwarzenegger

I'M BACK. I told you I wasn't done talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger. As you'd expect, I gleefully recycled my Schwarzenegger Sweeps reviews for a podcast episode. Long-time readers/listeners probably saw this coming. I even maintained the Signs of Schwarzenegger gimmick, and named the episode for it to boot! However, I did throw in my thoughts on "Twins," "Total Recall," "Kindergarten Cop," and "Last Action Hero," if you're desperately to hear me chatter about some thing new. Also, there's lots of bad Arnold impersonations contain within and, no, I do not apologize for that.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Arnold’s return to the big screen has not exactly being going smoothly. The end of his tenure as the governor of California was plagued by a sex scandal. Meanwhile, his cinematic endeavors have been met with audience indifference. Not many theater goers bothered with with the wooly, fun “The Last Stand,” though it’s already developed a cult following. “Escape Plan” also underperformed but, speaking strictly for myself, I thought it was surprisingly great. The third of Arnold’s comeback movies in two years was “Sabotage,” an extremely gritty crime thriller that also failed to connect with audiences. While I have reservations with the movie itself, it’s a very interesting choice for Schwarzenegger and shows that the aging action icon is willing to take risks in his old age.

The film follows a team of DEA Special Ops agents, expert drug busters and crime fighters, with nicknames like “Pyro,” “Grinder,” “Monster,” “Smoke,” and “Lizzy.” Led by John Wharton, nicknamed “Breacher,” the team decides to take a cut for themselves. While raiding the mansion of a drug lord, they make off with ten million dollars, at the price of one of their team member’s lives. A year later, after an extensive government investigation that nearly gets them all fired, something unexpected happens. Someone is killing off the different team members in especially gruesome ways. At first, a drug cartel takes the blame but soon, the gang begins to suspect each other. Breacher, teaming up with a female homicide detective, looks to get to the bottom of this. And how do the killings connect to the brutal murders of John’s family by the cartel years earlier?

“Sabotage” is the first of writer/director David Ayer’s films that I’ve seen. However, it would appear the guy is especially interested in stories of rough men working together on violent missions. The film focuses the manly bonding and petty bickering. (This probably makes him a good fit for the up-coming “Suicide Squad” movie.) “Sabotage” is pretty bro-tastic. From the beginning, the movie is full of colorfully profane language and heads exploding from high-powered rifle rounds. Each of the characters is introduced swearing, yelling, and killing. The scenes of the gang hanging out, training, playing video games, enjoying the sights of a strip club, or at a barbecue, are a bit hard to take. The characters are abrasive, to say the least. The macho posturing can be obnoxious but “Sabotage” quickly develops a theme. As suspicion rises among the team, they begin to turn on each other, proving there’s no honor among thieves. The reveal of the killer drives that point home even further. It’s a rough story but a valid one.

Maybe the reason “Sabotage” failed to connect with audiences, aside from its generic title, is that the trailers disguised the fact that the movie is as much murder mystery as gritty crime flick. The film was originally entitled the equally generic “Ten,” as in “Ten Little Indians.” The entire middle portion of the movie is devoted to unraveling who the killer is. Just as the action scenes are extra bloody and punishing, “Sabotage” piles on the gore during the murder scenes, pushing the movie to the edge of horror. A trailer, and its one resident, is left in the path of an on-coming train, an intense sequence. A body is found nailed to a ceiling, the guts trailing below, the floor covered in blood. A dismembered body is shoved in a fridge. More then the violence, the movie is a genuine whodunit. A lot of time is spent analyzing the evidence of the case, hairs and fingerprints left behind. The mystery involves in an natural way, drawing the viewer in.

To refer to “Sabotage” as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is slightly misleading. It’s ultimately an ensemble film. The biggest problem the film has is that most of the ensemble isn’t very likable. These are unpleasant characters but you don’t much enjoy spending time with them. Sam Worthington is nearly unrecognizable, covered in tattoos with a long goatee, as “Monster.” Terence Howard plays a sleazier spin on his usual smooth demeanor as “Sugar.” Joe Manganiello is probably the most likable of the gang as “Grinder,” a huge guy frequently seen on a motorcycle. Despite his demeanor, he turns out to have the most scruples of anybody on the team. The most despicable of the lot is Mireille Enos as Lizzy, a nasty, mean-spirited person more then willing to manipulate everyone around her. Despite being part of a team, this is still Arnold’s show. He’s more angry then usual, frequently beaming from under a pair of bushy eyebrows. His older age is put to good use, as a man who has lost a lot. He has fantastic chemistry with Olivia Williams as the detective, who proves to be one of the most unexpected parts of the film. She’s fiery, funny, and likable, one of the best things about the movie.

To go along with its excessively gritty screenplay, “Sabotage” is also full of effectively intense action. Ayer’s direction is interesting. Some of his tricks are distracting. During one shoot-outs, he attaches the camera to the barrel of a gun as it goes off, which doesn’t entirely work. More effective are the various scenes of the team working together, entering buildings, sweeping corners, and blowing away enemies. This is best illustrated when the gangs go to town on a dirty apartment where a cartel is hanging out. Bullets rip through the wall and bodies are bloodily blasted back. In the last act, “Sabotage” really finds its groove with a fantastic chase sequence. A high-light of this is Arnold in the back of a pick-up truck, carrying a giant assault rifle, wrap-around sunglasses on his head. As he dives behind the cab of the truck, returning fire, it seems like the action icon has never lost a step. The chase scene also ends in a truly shocking, and thrilling, explosion of violence.

Probably the most interesting thing about “Sabotage” is that the entire plot about the money, who stole it, and why they want it, is a red herring. In the final minutes, the film reveals itself as being about something very different. Arnold’s character goes on a quest of personal vengeance, one that the film has been building towards the entire time. In this moment, “Sabotage” becomes a surprisingly powerful tale of loss and slowly boiling rage. It’s, in a way, Arnold’s version of “Unforgiven.” He plays a man who has lived his entire life in violence and now that’s the only way he knows how to solve his problems, even his emotional ones. The climatic shoot-out in a dive bar is as viscerally violent as the rest of the movie but the action seems imbued with new meaning. If the entire film had been about this, “Sabotage” probably would have earned a lot more attention.

As a movie-movie, “Sabotage” is probably only worth a half-hearted recommendation. It’s an uneven film, for sure, and it’s not exactly the most friendly watching experience. The movie’s overly self-confident macho bravado leaves the viewer with a hangover. It’s a pretty decent mystery and a better action film, so it earns props for that. As an Arnold movie, however, it’s a must-see. The aging action star pushes his typical persona into some new, fascinating territory, giving one of his best performances in years. [7/10]

[] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[X] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

So what's next for Arnold Schwarzenegger? His most recent release is "Maggie," a character-driven zombie film that is seemingly a departure for both the star and the undead genre. Mostly though, Arnold seems destined to return to previous dry wells. This summer, there's a new "Terminator," which is going to especially absurd heights to justify casting the 67 year old as an immortal robot. After that, Arnold has promised a new "Conan" adventure and even a sequel to "Twins." Whether or not those will provide the aging Austrian with a twilight years hit, or if they'll even be watchable, remains to be seen. Personally, even if he's not as buffed or spry as he used to be, I'm happy to have Arnold back. The world feels safer somehow.

Thus concludes SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS. It was a lot of fun and I'm already planning a follow-up project for later this summer. Until then, it's back to podcasts and Director Report Card, both of which will have me discussing Arnold again sooner rather then later, as well as other stuff. See you soon.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS: Collateral Damage (2002)

Collateral Damage” is probably better known for the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its release then anything to do with the actual movie. The movie, about a firefighter going after the terrorist responsible for the death of his family, was originally scheduled for October 5th. This normally wouldn’t be a problem except this was October of 2001. Following September 11th, Warner Brothers desperately, suddenly pushed the film’s release date back to February of the next year. Buried in the winter months with very little promotion, it became one of the few genuine flops of Arnold’s career. Over the years, some have wonder what would’ve happen if “Collateral Damage” had been released when originally intended. In the aftermath of that horrible tragedy, wouldn’t it have been cathartic to watch Arnold murder terrorists? Maybe that would have flown in the eighties but not in this millennia. Ultimately, it was too soon, the subject matter was too raw, too close to the heart. Separated a decade from its original release, how does “Collateral Damage” play now?

Gordon Brewster is a happily married firefighter with a young son. He’s an especially brave man, leaping across gaping holes in flaming buildings to rescue people. On a seemingly normal day, a bomb goes off at a hospital, killing a number of people, including Brewster’s wife and son. Consumed by grief and anger, and disappointed by the government’s response, Brewster decides to take the fight to those responsible. He heads to Columbia on the trail of La Lobo, the murderer. Once there, Brewster realizes his mission of revenge is more complex then assumed and not everyone is who they appear to be.

In “End of Days,” Schwarzenegger played a darker character, a more conflicted type then he usually handles. “Collateral Damage” has the star returning to similar territory. The opening scenes of the film are almost too perfect and happy. The filmmaker’s goal is obvious, to make the inevitable lose all the more shocking. When the wife and kid are dead, around the eight minute mark, before the opening credits are even over, it’s expected. What isn’t expected is the movie focusing as much as it does on Gordon’s grief. During these scenes, Arnold’s face is haggard, his expression long. As big as the legendary star is, he seems unusually small. Schwarzenegger – wait for it – actually gives a good performance. He genuinely seems like a man who has lost something. The depression, and the anger, that follows is similarly intense. One of the film’s taglines referred to him as a “man with nothing to loose.” Arnold stretches his abilities as far as he can to fulfill that role. From the perspective of dramatic acting, it might be his best performance.

“Collateral Damage” is also not the low stakes popcorn action flick you might expect. The film deals seriously with the weight of revenge. While in Columbia, Brewster plants a bomb for Perrini, expecting to take him out. At that moment, he spies the villain’s wife and son walking down the street. Arnold dives to save them, afraid of repeating the act he’s avenging. Captured by the terrorists, the film brings up the uncomfortable fact that one man’s heroism is another man’s terrorism. The film’s villain considers himself a freedom fighter. In his quest for justice, Brewster comes dangerously close to becoming what he’s fighting. The movie isn’t afraid to show combat as a dirty, bloody business, two separate guerrilla organization brutally gunning each other down at one point. That a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor not exactly known for picking material with dramatic nuance, would addresses these issues in this way is surprising. And welcomed.

To match the seriousness of the material, “Collateral Damage” is more of a thriller then an action film. During its run time, Arnold never even picks up a gun. The flashiest action scene in the film is a close-quarter struggle with an attacker over an active mine. Instead, the film spends a lot of time showing how Brewster gets into Columbia, faking a passport, sneaking into the city, avoiding detection from the local authorities. A lengthy sequence, which includes a cameo from a typically off-the-wall John Tuturro, has Arnold toiling for a while in a Colombian prison. Once he’s in the jungle, he spends more time running from the various military forces then fighting back. He gets close to his target with subterfuge and trickery. When the explosions come, they’re from home-made bombs planted by the good guy. Arnold’s character is easily captured and held prisoner by the antagonist for a lengthy portion in the middle of the film. All of this is atypical of the star’s usual movies. “Collateral Damage” is well written and paced, functioning as a thriller that keeps the audience surprised.

One of those surprises is the last act. The story returns to the US, Brewster on the trail of Perrini, his wife and kid in tow. It’s at this point that the worm turns, another bomb far closer then expected. Our hero figures it out before anyone else. The exact location of the bomb, and the way the movie reveals it, is effectively surprising. Loyalties are a twist that seemed a little cheap at first but I got over it. In its’ final third, “Collateral Damage” turns into an excellent chase flick. There’s a tense chase down an elevator shaft, Arnold and the target kicking at each other among the ladders and cables. The motorcycle aided game of chicken is exciting and I like the way it plays out. The film ends up eating its cake and having it too. The story mostly plays out as a tense thriller but we still get to see Arnold have a face-off with the bad guy, executing him with brute force and home-grown strength.

Supporting Arnold is a decent selection of character actors. Francesca Neri is soft but strong-willed as the main villain’s suffering wife. Cliff Curtis, as said villain, gets some surprising moments of humility and humanity. Elias Koteas plays the FBI agent equally pursuing and assisting Brewster. It’s not Koteas’ deepest performance but he’s fine in the part. John Leguizamo shows up for a thankless role as the villain’s mechanic. It’s a small role, with Leguizamo adding a little comic relief in a mostly fairly grim film. I also couldn’t help but notice Jane Lynch, in a bit part as an unlucky FBI agent.

“Collateral Damage” surprised me. For those you say Arnold is an actor who has never been willing to stretch himself, I suggest they watch this one. Not only is it a strong performance from him but a different sort of movie, a serious thriller with actual political themes on its mind. Yet it still gives Schwarzenegger faithfuls what they want: Namely, Arnold being a badass and taking out the trash. The decision to delay the film’s release was probably a smart one. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 was not the sensitive time to release a film like this, one that plays real world issues for both psychological studying and action movie thrills. In retrospect, it might be one of the hidden gems of Arnold’s long career. [7/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

Friday, April 24, 2015


Even in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s waning years, he wasn’t box office poison. “Eraser” doesn’t get talked about much but it made money. “End of Days” was forgettable but it made money. “Jingle All the Way” and “Batman & Robin” were extended embarrassments but even they made money. What about “The 6th Day?” Wikipedia refers to it as a “box office success.” However, consider this. “The 6th Day” was made for 82 million dollars. It made 116 million. Sure, a 34 million dollar return is nothing to sneeze at.  But it’s hardly a runaway success and less then what the actor’s last four movies made. That “The 6th Day” made any money at all is surprising. It may very well be the nadir of Schwarzenegger’s career, an egregiously awful film that fails in every way.

In the not so distant future, the technology to clone humans exists. However, that particular taboo has been outlawed, though the cloning of animals and organs are okay. Adam Gibson is a family man and a helicopter pilot. When he gets the job to escort cloning mogul Michael Drucker, his life changes. Gibson wakes up in a daze. He heads back home and sees a clone of himself talking to his wife and playing with his daughter. Soon, Gibson is a wanted man, hunted by Drucker’s lackeys. Turns out, Gibson is at the center of a conspiracy involving anti-cloning terrorists, mad science, and shifty corporate crime.

The most immediate question “The 6th Day” leaves me with is not a deep quandary about the purpose of cloning or the existence of the human soul. The burning question is: What the fuck is wrong with Roger Spottiswoode’s direction? “The 6th Day” begins with slow-motion replays of scenes we’ve already seen. Slow-motion is utilized frequently. Slow-motion is tacky in the best of situations. Spottiswoode’s uses it all the damn time. Even unimportant scenes, like a doll flying out a window or Arnold stumbling down some stairs, are in slow-mo. The most annoying thing the director does is the scene transitions. For some god forsaken reason, each time the scene shifts, we cut to an overview shot of a city with digital lines flashing over it. Why? “Terror Train” didn’t look like this. Not even “Tomorrow Never Dies” looked like this. Did Roger Spottiswoode have an aneurism in the editing room? “The 6th Day” looks like total shit and it’s completely inexcusable.

I think “The 6th Day” was attempting to be serious science fiction, exploring the philosophical ramifications of cloning. Instead, it should have gone for the cheese value of having double the Arnold. Van Damme has fought himself, like, four times so its natural Arnie would do it. Disappointingly, “The 6th Day” doesn’t go there. Arnold teams up with himself but that’s not nearly as fun. Even in a shitty movie like this, the Austrian Oak brings his A-game. The one-liners are pretty lame and the action is uninspired but Arnold remains a captivating, physical performer. See the scene where he dangles over a waterfall from a fence. He mugs a little too much but I believe this was a defense mechanism against the lousy screenplay. The weirdest thing about the character Adam Gibson is his character arc. In the opening scene, he’s a family man, flirting with his wife, playing with his kid, and joking with his co-workers. Once the cloning conspiracy is revealed, he’s picking up a laser gun, snapping necks, and running over bad guys. Later on, a short line is dropped about Gibson being a veteran of, ugh, the “Rainforest War.” But the sudden transition from family man to murder machine is startling. And I’m talking about an actor who always plays murder machines.

If people remembering anything about “The 6th Day,” it’s the movie’s hilariously dated version of the future. The very first scene is set at an XFL game. That’s right, the XFL, the bastard off-spring of pro football and pro wrestling that lasted for one season (that’s three months) in 2001. Some of the technology in “The 6th Day” is slightly more plausible then the XFL lasting into the future for any extended amount of time. There are self-driving car, a technology that currently exists. There’s a fridge that tells you when you run out of milk, which you can buy on Amazon. However, the execution is hacky. Since the cars don’t need drivers, the passengers turn to talk to each other in a really awkward fashion. The talking fridge comes off as goofy. An automated 9-1-1 call is plausible but unlikely, and clumsily presented, technology. Then there’s the cloning, which works like fast food. Even in the future, that’s impossible. And what about the weird, helicopter/airplane combos, brought to life by the year 2000’s best CGI? Or the laser guns? Or the prospect of America going to war to defend the rainforest? Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath for those.

There’s plenty of unintentional hilarity in “The 6th Day” but don’t think it’s a super somber science fiction film. The movie has comic relief. However, that comic relief is bafflingly awful and usually off-putting. Early on, Gibson’s daughter asks for a SimPal Doll, a robot doll that grows hair and plays like a child. When we meet SimPal Cindy, she’s horrifying. Her face looks like a nightmare combination of Chucky and Lily Cole. That baby from “Twilight” was more convincing. Worst, SimPal Cindy talks, in a weird, mechanical voice. When hurt, she cries. She begs for mercy, to make the hurting stop. I think this is supposed to be funny. It’s deeply, seriously not. Arnold’s best friend in the movie, played by a stoned Michael Rappaport, has a holographic girlfriend. She’s programmed to be as docile, sexual, and subservient as possible, proving that sexism still exist in the future. Also off-putting are the villain’s trio of henchmen, played by Michael Rooker, Terry Crews, and some actress in a blue wig. They have been cloned so often that the bad guy doesn’t care about them. They get their limbs blown and sliced off, limping around on bloody stumps. This would be hilarious in “Dead/Alive” but in a serious sci-fi/action combination, it’s strangely disturbing.

Eventually, “The 6th Day” reaches a balance of staggeringly bad decisions and crappy writing. You get used to the goofy sci-fi technology and the bungled attempts at humor. So the film settles in for a boring last act. There’s a lame attempt at a plot twist. The Arnold we think is the original turns out to the clone. The way to determine a clone is revealed. The bad guy attempts to mind-fuck the hero. This twist becomes even lamer when we discover it’s a trick on Arnold’s behalf. So there’s shoot-out and a last minute ploy by the villain. It’s super tedious. I just watched the movie a half-hour ago and I still don’t really remember the details of it. Safe to say, “The 6th Day” starts out as so-bad-it’s-funny before transforming into so-bad-it’s-dull.

Aside from the creepy doll, the weirdest thing about “The 6th Day” is that it co-stars Robert Duvall. I don’t know how the movie wrangled an Academy Award winner and a former “Godfather” cast member into appearing in it. Duvall’s scenes are very earnest and revolve around his cloned wife dying. Duvall’s role is fairly small and at odds with the movie’s overall tone. He seems very confused about what’s happening. Tony Goldwyn plays the main villain as a snotty, conceited, asshole corporate exec. Goldwyn is a weird choice for the part and never seems comfortable in the film. Experienced character actors like Rapaport and Rooker never let the cracks show but none of them seem entirely sure what to do with the material either.

That “The 6th Day” turned out the way it did required a long series of massive miscalculations on many people’s behalves. It’s not merely a bad movie but a major fiasco. As a science fiction film, it’s seriously laughable. As an action movie, it’s hugely uninspired. As a film about cloning, it doesn’t address the concept in any serious way. As an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, it barely registers. Arnold is arguably the best thing about it but even someone as massively charming as him can’t save this massive creative failure. [2/10]

[] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[X] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 63: The Jaws Series

It's getting close to summer so Mr. Mash and I decided to (metaphorically) head to the beach and talk about the Jaws series! That original is really a great movie, one of my all-time favorites, and those sequels are... Not so good. But it makes for a brief, fun episode of podcasting!

Schwarzenegger Sweeps will continue tomorrow and another Bangers n' Mash episode will becoming soon. Promise!


Sitting here in our lofty year of 2015, it’s easy to be dismissive of turn-of-the-millennia hysteria. By my count, we’ve survived at least three subsequent end of the world dates. At the time though, some people were really freaking out. It wasn’t just the new-agers and the religious crazies. The Y2K bug even had sane people worried. Not helping matters were movies like “End of Days,” seeking to capitalize on millennial anxieties. As a Schwarzenegger movie, “End of Days” is the first movie Arnold made following open heart surgery. It was the beginning of a low, third period in his career, following his eighties golden age and the experimental nineties years. His next few movies weren’t particularly successful, leading Arnold to consider a second career in politics.

In the days leading up to the end of 1999, the end of the millennia, some weird shit begins to happen in New York. Depressed cop Jericho Cane personally witnesses a mute priest, an attempted assassin, speak. A restaurant explodes suddenly. A man is pinned to a ceiling with knives, Latin carved onto his chest. Cane’s investigation leads him to a strange girl, Christine York, who has bizarre visions. Turns out, Christine is the predestined mate of Satan. If Lucifer, inhabitant the body of a man, sleeps with the girl before the strike of midnight on December 31st, she will give birth to the Antichrist and begin the end of days. Now Jericho has to overcome his own crisis of faith, protect Christine from various attackers, and cock block the devil.

By 1999, the type of heroes Schwarzenegger usually played were no longer in vogue. Audiences could no longer buy the hyper-macho, hyper-violent hero who, despite killing lots of people, maintained the moral high ground. So in “End of Days,” the superstar played a part he hadn’t attempted in a long time: The grizzled anti-hero. Jericho Cane is introduced putting a gun to his head. He’s an alcoholic with a bad case of perma-stubble. The cause of his depression is the death of his wife and children, murdered by home invaders. So Arnold is grouchy throughout the entire film. He’s ill-tempered, violent, vulgar, and frequently hungover. The movie also has Arnold attempting something he doesn’t usually do: Emoting. Jericho is a troubled man and even cries at one point. Arnold does better then you’d expected. Mostly though, he just seems tired and angry.

Also, he’s playing Jesus. Okay, not really. However, Jericho Cane is one in a long line of self-sacrificing genre heroes whose initials are pointedly “J.C.” That’s right, “self-sacrificing.” Spoiler alert for a 15 year old movie: Arnold kills himself at the end of the film, choosing to die in order to drive Satan out and save the day. In case you didn’t get the reference, the movie even crucifies Arnold. Cane has nails hammered into his body and is strung up on an iron cross in an alley way. Not helping matters: "Jericho" and "Caine" are obvious religious references too. I have no problem with Arnold ending the movie dead. It’s a natural move for the screenplay. The Christ metaphor stuff seems really thrown in though. Caine spends the whole movie doubting the existence of God. Not exactly the most Christ-like move. Also, I don’t think Jesus ever blew devil worshipers away with a grenade launcher. It’s almost as if the movie just included it because “End of Days” is a quasi-religious story, whether or not it made any sense.

From a story perspective, “End of Days” is an awkward fusion of detective movie, conspiracy thriller, action flick, and religious horror film. The detective and conspiracy elements aren’t successful at all. A brief prologue explains the movie’s mythology, giving the audience a good idea of where this is all going. Despite this, it still takes the characters a half-hour to deduce what is happening. Arnold is many things but an effective sleuth isn’t one of them. An awkward subplot involves an order of priest sent to kill the girl. That would have saved everyone a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it? But, no, Arnold has to fight these guys too, choosing to protect the girl, even if it imperils the world. Sadly, “End of Days” isn’t that good of a horror movie either. The film’s attempts at horrific imagery are fairly flaccid. An old lady sprouts claws at one point. A creepy albino shatters like he’s made of glass. Characters are tossed into the air by invisible forces. Satan has sex with two women at once, their bodies fusing into one. The finale has the devil briefly appearing as a giant, CGI bat-monster. None of this is scary. It’s not even especially amusing from a trashy, gory perspective. The movie even throws in that old chestnut of a cat jumping out from behind a door.

About the only time the horrific, religious themes work at all is when Jericho and the Devil come face-to-face. There’s a lengthy sequence in the middle of the film where Satan appears in Caine’s apartment. He tempts the hero directly. He offers to give him a reality where his wife and child never died. We see the events of their murder. Arnold is in the room but is unable to touch or interact with anyone. It’s a fairly melodramatic scene. However, it’s strangely fascinating to watch. Maybe it’s just because Arnold is yelling profanity at Satan the whole time. It’s easy to imagine a better version of “End of Days” focusing on this struggle. “The Last Temptation of Schwarzenegger,” if you will. The real climax of the film is when Caine regains his faith, praying to God for help just as the devil is about to swoop in. It’s the best bit of acting from Arnold in the movie – Seriously! – and is the only time the film’s religious themes seem sincere.

In the last third, after successfully surviving crucifixion, Jericho takes the fight to the Satanists. Armed with a crap load of big guns, he storms into the cult’s evil, underground lair. This is when “End of Days” really begins to feel like a Schwarzenegger movie. He’s blowing away hooded cultists with a machine gun, working his way through the crowd. He explodes their evil church with the aforementioned grenade launcher. The most delirious moment in the film, and therefore the most entertaining, is Jericho confronting the devil on a subway train. Running with the girl in hand, the two are pursued through a running train. They unhook the train cars, causing Arnold to do a melodramatic dive between the two moving cars. Finally, he blasts Satan with a rocket, sending him flying into the opposite train car, exploding gloriously. The movie continues on for a few more minute but this is the proper conclusion. It’s not “Commando.” It’s not even “Eraser.” But it’s dumb fun in its own right.

The one other major mark in the pros column is Gabriel Bryne. In a part Willem DaFoe surely would have played a few years later, Bryne decimates the scenery, chewing it all up. He villainously preens, growls, and hisses, packing in as much campy, Satanic glee as possible. Apparently, Udo Kier was originally supposed to play the devil. That would have been amazing but maybe mainstream audiences weren’t ready for full Udo. Instead, Kier plays a perverse priest and does well in the part. A wildly overqualified Rod Steiger, in one of his last roles, plays a good priest. Steiger is underserved, mostly delivering flat exposition. CCH Pounder gets to be a little villainous, after her police officer is possessed. Kevin Pollak, as Jericho’s BFF Bobby, is also occasionally amusing. At the very least, he has a good rapport with Arnold.

In conclusion, “End of Days” is a bit of a slog. It’s rather glum, lacking the humor that characterizes most of Schwarzenegger’s career. The screenplay is awfully messy, taking way too long to get to the point. It fails as a horror film and a thriller. By the time we get to the good stuff, Arnold gunning down hordes of foes, it’s a bit too little, too late. It’s mostly worth checking out if you want to see Arnold in a serious mood or an overly hammy Gabriel Bryne. Ultimately, a movie with the log line of “Schwarzenegger vs. Satan!” should have been a lot more entertaining. [5/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[X] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm