Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 95: The Hellraiser Series


It's the end of the month, which means it's time for another episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show.



This time, JD and I turn our eyes towards Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" and its many sequels, the majority of them misbegotten. I've got to tell you, this was one of the harder Bangers n' Mash episode to prepare for. I would not reccommend marathoning the "Hellraiser" franchise. Boy, do those movies drop off wildly in quality so very quickly.

Anyway, by the time the majority of you read this, it'll be September. The clock is ticking before we hit the happiest time of the year. As always, the Six Weeks of Halloween will begin on September 18th. Mark your calendars! Before then, I have some stuff prepared to fill in the days and weeks before the Halloween season officially starts, including a new, brief Director Report Card. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

NO ENCORES: The Room (2003)


1. The Room (2003)
Director: Tommy Wiseau

Can you believe I’ve never seen “The Room” before? The film’s reputation more then proceeds it. “The Room” is undeniably the reigning cult classic of the modern day. Unlike many prefab cult flicks, “The Room's” following emerged totally organically. Created almost solely by a madman, the film’s billboard advertisement attracted morbidly curious viewers. After realizing how insane the movie was, watchers started showing up regularly. “The Room” began as a west coast in-joke but spread across the world thanks to word of mouth and yearly April Fools Day screenings on Adult Swim. Now, “The Room’s” cult reputation is such that books and movies are being made about it. This fascination with “The Room” is totally warranted. Director/writer/producer/star Tommy Wiseau has made a few attempts to cash in on his cult success but has yet to direct another feature film.

Johnny seemingly has an ideal life. He’s engaged to marry Lisa, a woman he loves dearly. He’s adopted a teenage boy, who looks up to him. All his friends adore him. Lisa, however, has grown bored with Johnny. Secretly, she’s begun sleeping with his best friend, Mark. Mark is conflicted by this, fearful of hurting his friend, but can’t resist Lisa’s sex appeal. Soon, Johnny becomes aware of Lisa’s infidelity. The turmoil in his life begins to pile up. The stress threatens to tear him apart.

It’s impossible to discuss “The Room” without bringing up the bizarre circumstances surrounding its creation. Who is Tommy Wiseau? The filmmaker is an enigma. His origins are shrouded in mystery. His accent is difficult to decipher, though some research points to Wiseau being Polish. “The Room” was made for a rather hefty sum of six million dollars. By some accounts, Wiseau was a successful businessman before branching into film making, which seems difficult to believe. Who, or what, ever Tommy Wiseau is, one thing is apparent. “The Room” was a passion project for him. Once the movie’s ironic following bloomed, Wiseau has claimed “The Room” was always meant to be funny. The actual project, meanwhile, suggest utter earnestness. The film is the tortured screaming of a troubled soul, a cry for help and recognition. No other human being could’ve made this.

It’s also utterly inept. There’s so much about “The Room” that is unintentionally hilarious. Yet no element amuses more then the film’s whiplash inducing tonal shifts. Scenes of wacky comic relief, such as friends of Johnny messing around in his apartment, shift suddenly into deadly seriousness. Light comedic dialogue stands alongside life altering revelations. A playful scene of football ends suddenly when a character falls into a trash can, seemingly seriously injuring himself. One minute, a room full of characters will be discussing the heavy issues in their life before segueing violently into cutesy banter. A long shot is devoted to Johnny running in the park, with no further implication on the story. People dress up in tuxedos for no reason. Character motivations shift from scene to scene. Cast members come and go with little effect on the plot. All of “The Room” is like this, resulting in an utterly baffling viewing experience.

Tommy Wiseau claims his cinematic influences are Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock. Yet the type of movie “The Room” most closely resembles is softcore pornography. Early in the film’s run time, Johnny and Lisa are in bed. The bedroom is shot with soft lighting, a transparent curtain hanging above the bed. Embarrassingly saccharine R&B play over the love scenes. Hilariously, this music plays even when two characters who should not be having sex are going at it. Juliette Danielle and, more uncomfortably, Tommy Wiseau are often nude. While Danielle is attractive, Wiseau’s body is less camera friendly. The sex itself is bizarrely positioned, causing more giggles among viewers. More often then not, “The Room” feels like an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries” from some bizarro alternate universe.

As I said, “The Room” is deeply personal. This first viewing left me with many questions but the most pertinent one is: Tommy Wiseau, who was the woman that hurt you? Juliette Danielle’s Lisa is portrayed as nothing sort of a venom-spewing succubus. Johnny is treated practically like a saint. He provides shelter to his girlfriend, several friends, and has seemingly adopted a troubled youth. Despite their seemingly happy relationship, Lisa betrays Johnny, sleeping with his best friend. Why? Because Johnny bores her, for some reason. She tells vicious lies about Johnny, claiming he’s drinking and beating her. She manipulates both men, even telling Johnny that she’s pregnant. Johnny becomes aware of Lisa’s infidelity early on but continues to stay with her for quite some time. Even after the grim ending, the movie continues to pile on Lisa. She’s frequently called a tramp, a slut, a whore, a bitch. “The Room” holds many mysteries but Wiseau’s thoughts on his ex-girlfriends isn’t one of them.

If you want to endear your movie to nerds all over the world, pack it full of quotable dialogue. This is true of “The Room” but for all the wrong reasons. The dialogue is best described as circular. Characters will repeat the same information multiple times within one scene. In one scene, a character orders pizza. Afterwards, she asks if she should order pizza. She then corrects herself, pointing out she already ordered pizza. An especially hilarious series of scenes has party goers going outside and inside multiple times. It’s as if Wiseau forget the point of scenes midway through writing them. Thanks to the movie’s careening tone, conversations about abuse allegations crash right into casual chitchat. The script meanders, making sure Wiseau says hello to a dog or chats with a barista. When given an expositionary monologue, Tommy rambles endlessly about seemingly irrelevant details. “The Room” will likely have you laughing but no element provides more hilarity then the immediately memorable dialogue.

Of course, the acting is really weird too. Objectively, it’s terrible. Wiseau is difficult to understand, frequently reading his own bizarre dialogue in an odd monotone. When given big moments, he screams for the heavens. Greg Sestero as Mark flatly walks through his scenes, swinging from incredulous to angry with little reasoning. Juliette Danielle as Lisa can be seemingly sweet one scene and utterly evil in the next. All the performances are like this. They ratchet back and forth between extremes, all while maintaining a very strange affectation. Weirder yet, most of the cast members keep a straight face throughout this insanity. Only Kyle Vogt as Peter ever visibly shows how confused he is by the script. The performers come off less like actors playing characters and more like aliens pretending to be humans. Poorly.

What does one make of Denny? Out of all the strange elements in “The Room,” Denny is certainly one of the strangest. The character is apparently a college student. However, he acts like a prepubescent child. More then once, he refers to Johnny as a father figure and Lisa as a mother figure. However, in one especially awkward moment, he confesses he has romantic feelings for Lisa. Denny’s Oedipal feelings for his adopted parents might explain why he’s so eager to watch them have sex in an early scene. After its initial appearance, this plot point is never acknowledged again. “The Room” does this frequently. In one notorious moment, Denny is attacked by a drug dealer with a gun. This spirals into a hilarious scene where Lisa and her mom are frantically questioning him about what happened. Denny seemingly bought drugs, either to use or sell. Once again, after this single scene, none of this information is mentioned. Philip Haldiman plays Denny as something akin to an idiot man-child, a six year old in the body of an adult.

Plot points that are raised and then forgotten are a frequent occurrence inside “The Room.” Lisa’s mother, Claudette, ranges from motherly to shrewish often within the same scene. Even after Lisa’s irrational hatred of Johnny becomes clear, Claudette insists she marry him. Yet none of that matters, because Claudette is dying of breast cancer. This is casually dropped in the middle of a conversation and – you guessed it – never referenced again. This is one of the few films that could be watched out of order and the audience would be unlikely to notice. I’m not convinced some scenes aren’t out of order already.

And what of Mike, Johnny’s rather fratboyish friend? Mike and his girlfriend attempt to have sex within Johnny’s apartment. This factoid, and the embarrassing fallout, is repeatedly brought up. The character seemingly exists for comic relief. Yet because so much of “The Room” is already hilarious, these attempts at comedy just add to the film’s supreme awkwardness. Moreover, Mike disappears from the film before the end, replaced by another character named Steven. The small but constantly shifting cast suggest that Wiseau had many ideas for “The Room,” jumbled them up, and stitched them together at random.

If I haven’t made it clear, “The Room” is completely ineptly made. Take Wiseau’s direction, for example. He often cuts to establishing shots of San Francisco, maudlin and generic music playing over the lingering images. The rest of the film is shot rather flatly. Characters mostly stand around and talk, with few close-ups or movements. Except for the handful of times when the camera whips across the room, unprofessionally, to other characters. Or how about the pacing? Even as a delirious cult experience, “The Room” drags before it’s over. That birthday party scene goes on forever. The denouncement, meanwhile, is equally drawn out.

All of my criticism of “The Room” may make you think I hate it. The opposite is true. I love “The Room.” Every single frame of this movie demands conversation. Every minute makes you wonder how such a picture could’ve been made. The film is pure outsider art, endearing, bizarre, and unforgettable. It’s the perfect cult classic for the millennial age, a tale of relationship anxiety and life-crushing pressure filtered through a madman’s sensibilities. Wiseau has followed up his unintentional masterpiece with several short films and a quasi-television series. Recently, he’s threatened to make a sequel, which would reveal that Johnny was a vampire all along. However, a part of me hopes he leaves well enough alone. Nothing could ever replicate the experience of ‘The Room,” a film that is endlessly fascinating, completely by accident. [8/10]

Monday, August 29, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: King Ralph (1991)


John Goddman is a rightfully beloved performer, fondly remembered by an entire generation as Dan Conner, the tough but lovably grounded patriarch on “Roseanne.” Goodman has had a fine career as a character actor and has made his mark in films by auteurs like the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Todd Solondz. Yet he’s also a working actor. During his brief popularity as a leading man, he starred in mediocre films like “The Flintstones” and “The Babe.” And “King Ralph,” a minor hit from 1991 that is rarely brought up or mentioned when discussing Goodman’s best performances. So why do I own this?

“King Ralph” is one of those light-weight comedies that begin with a mass death. Following a series of unlikely circumstances, the entire British royal family is killed in a freak accident. The royal secretary has the difficult task of tracking down a remaining heir. That heir is found in the United States, in Las Vegas. Ralph Jones is a lounge singer and a bit of a slob. Ralph is plucked out of his usually vulgar American life and dropped into the lap of British luxury. Ralph, however, has difficulty adapting to the royal life. Especially once he starts developing feelings for a stripper. Moreover, forces inside the royal palace seek to discredit him and place themselves in the seat of power.

“King Ralph” is almost suffocatingly high concept. “What if a typical Ugly American somehow became the King of England?” Amazingly, the idea for “King Ralph” didn't originate in the mind of a hacky Hollywood screenwriter. Instead, the film is actually based (albeit loosely) on the novel “Headlong” by Emlyn Williams. I haven’t read Williams’ book but I suspect that most of the film’s gags sprang from writer/director David S. Ward's imagination. Ward’s other credits – both “Major League” movies, “Down Periscope” – are on roughly the same wavelength.

“King Ralph” partakes in all the expected fish out of water story beats. Ralph has the expected aghast reaction to British stereotypes like spotted dick, fox hunting, cricket, and stuffy royal balls. Uninspired wordplay is par the course for “King Ralph.” Its other jokes concern itself with lame visual gags. Such as Ralph performing Little Richard on the harpsichord, accidently tossing a Cornish Game Hen across a dinner table, greeting an African dignitary with Ebonics street slang, or having a weird encounter with a foreign princess.

It’s all fairly dire stuff, with the laughs rarely coming. When “King Ralph” works at all, it’s as a vehicle for John Goodman’s good-natured goofiness. He can’t elevate embarrassing gags about dart games or a deep voiced, kinky princess. However, he has a certain charisma that manages to make the bone stupid stuff mildly charming. Such as Ralph wearing the Royal Crown while taking a bath or misunderstanding phrases like “cricket.” Even while oogling a busty stripper, there’s an earnestness to the performance that remains likable. “King Ralph” is a deeply dumb, uninspired movie. But Goodman gives it his all. When prancing around like an idiot during the harpsichord assisted performance of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” he actually got a smile out of me.

The actual plot mechanics of “King Ralph” are deeply uninspired. Camille Coduri plays Miranda, the stripper that wins Ralph’s heart. There’s not very much to the romance, as Ralph immediately falls for the girl upon setting eyes on her. Coduri is mildly charming but the script gives her very little to work with. Naturally, Miranda is bribed by the movie’s villain into helping to discredit Ralph. (This entire subplot is mostly unnecessary, as Ralph does a fine job of discrediting himself.) As ridiculous as Lord Percival Graves’ villainy is, he’s also played by John Hurt. If Goodman’s affable charm makes a shallow character like Ralph likable, Hurt makes something out of nothing. He hams it up gloriously, having a ball playing a paper thin bad guy.

Why Do I Own This?: As is often the case with this column, I have no good answer to that question. “King Ralph” is another flick that I watched a few times on VHS as a kid. I’m pretty sure I grabbed the tape from a video store sales rack. Somehow, the movie got dumped in the “upgrade” pile during my mass exodus from VHS to DVD.

“King Ralph” isn’t totally useless. The supporting cast is packed with respected British thespians like Richard Griffiths and Peter O’Toole. O’Toole is especially amusing when acting incredulous to Goodman’s antics. And, throughout it all, John Goodman remains affable enough. Yet it’s a deeply mediocre product, with a totally by-the-numbers script and not enough laughs to compensate. Truly, another one I can not justify owning. [5/10]

Friday, August 26, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Creed (2015)


Rocky Balboa’s story ended in, well, “Rocky Balboa.” Even someone as sequel happy as Sylvester Stallone realized continuing the story beyond that point was ridiculous. However, sometimes unexpected things happen. Ryan Coogler, an up-and-coming director who had won acclaim for “Fruitvale Station,” was apparently a big fan of the “Rocky” series, feeling a personal connection with the films. He had an idea for a new film that was as much sequel as spin-off. In other words, “Creed” was essentially “Rocky” fan fiction that became official. Even more surprising, “Creed” would be a hit with audiences and critics. The film even took Sylvester Stallone, a creative mind who rarely gets the respect he deserves, back to the Academy Awards for the first time in forty years.

When he was ten years old, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson discovered that his father was Apollo Creed, world famous boxing champion, and that he was the result of an extramarital affair. Taken in by Creed’s widow, Adonis spends his whole life trying to live up to his late father’s legacy. While working at a comfortable office job, he competes in underground boxing matches. After quitting his job and getting rejected by his father’s gym, he flies to Philadelphia. Meeting up with Rocky Balboa, he talks the former champ into training him. Soon, an oppretunity arrives for Adonis to prove his worth.

Ryan Coogler’s admiration for the “Rocky” series is obvious in “Creed.” The film features many callbacks to the franchise’s history. Rocky is still spending most of his time at Adrian’s. He still visits his late wife’s grave all the time, with Paulie recently joining his sister. Robert Jr. is living in Vancouver with a girlfriend. Mickey’s gym is a major setting. Adonis trains by jumping rope and chasing chickens. Moreover, “Creed” clearly imitates the original “Rocky,” in story and tone. Both films concern an inexperienced boxer eager to prove himself. He gets that chance when the reigning champ asks to fight him. There’s a love story and a montage of running down the street. Something else “Creed” has in common with “Rocky” is a naturalistic tone. Coogler shoots at a street level, with lots of ambient noise and atmosphere.

The film is named “Creed,” instead of “Adonis,” not just for commercial reasons. Throughout the film, Donnie struggles with his relationship with his deceased father. On one hand, he idolizes him, his bloodline initially driving him to become a boxer. After entering the ring, and his true parentage being revealed to the world, he starts to resent the name. That everyone assumes he’s a “Fake Creed” or a “Baby Creed,” someone coasting on his father’s legacy and unworthy of that name. By the end, he’s come to peace with it, during an especially touching sequence. Michael B. Jordan’s performance is excellent, as someone struggling with his birthright and fighting to prove himself.

“Rocky” and “Creed” both feature their titular boxer falling in love. But Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is very different from Adrien. A would-be R&B star, Bianca has a promising musical career. She also has progressive hearing loss, already using a hearing aide in one ear, that will eventually rob her of her hearing altogether. At first, she is resistant to Adonis’ advances. However, he slowly charms her. Their first date – getting Philly cheese steaks at a local restaurant – is an awfully sweet moment. When he visits her apartment, goofing around with her musical equipment, is another stand-out sequence. The film isn’t without its trumped up melodrama, such as when Adonis picks a fight at a club were Bianca is singing, but it’s also good at defusing moments like that. Such as Adonis not revealing his true last name to her sooner, which dissolves in a really sweet scene. The romance is the secret heart of “Creed,” Jordan and Thompson’s chemistry making the film better then it otherwise would’ve been.

“Creed” is about Donnie but the film still continues Rocky’s storyline. Balboa has settled into retirement, happily running his restaurant, his fighting days long behind him. He’s reluctant to train the younger Creed, as everyone he loves has left him, but is eventually talked into it. During filming, Stallone was the same age Burgess Meredith was during “Rocky,” making his transition into trainer a natural choice. This makes the training montages especially joyous. Yet the film gives Rocky a juicier arc then that. Midway through the film, he collapses suddenly. A trip to the doctor reveals that Rocky has cancer. At first, he’s disinterested in treatment, deciding he’s had enough of a life already. Soon, Creed convinces him otherwise. The film happily makes the comparison that both Rocky and Donnie are fighting. One in the ring, one for his life. Stallone’s Oscar nominated performance is restrained, lived-in, relaxed, but quietly touching.

Like the original “Rocky,” “Creed” doesn’t feature very many boxing matches. There’s a few brief scuffles in the beginning, a major fight at the mid point, and the championship bout at the end. Over these few scenes, Coogler shows a definite aptitude for action direction. For Creed’s first major fight, Coogler takes the camera inside the ring. During an impressive single shot, the camera zips in-between the two fighters, around the punches, whipping in and out of their corners. It’s the action high-light of the film. However, the final fight is still highly cinematic, an exciting sequence determined to make the audience feel the impact of the blows and the power of the punches. (The director’s handle on action is certainly good news for Coogler’s upcoming gig in the Marvel universe.)

“Creed” is clearly derivative of the very first “Rocky.” Both films even have similar endings. Then again, “Rocky” was derivative of other inspirational sports movie before it. With a strong directorial arm and a fantastic cast, Coogler, Stallone, and the rest of the team have created a worthy new addition to the franchise and a film that stands fantastically on its own. The odds seem good that “Creed” will launch a new franchise. Sly is eager to play his iconic role well into retirement age. Maybe Adonis can fight Ivan Drago Jr. in part two? That’d be cool. [8/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 2 outta 5]
[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Lonely Old Man]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling





Before Sylvester Stallone nearly won an Academy Award for "Creed," he seemed ready and eager to continue to ride his action movie legacy. Further sequels to "Rambo" and "The Expendables" were planned. After Sly's brush with Oscar gold, the veteran star's future plans seem to have changed. He's only currently announced future projects is a supporting role in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" sequel. While a "Creed" sequels seems a likely proposition, perhaps Sly is finally starting to slow down in his old age? He's more then earned it. Whatever the old guy gets up to next, I'm intrigued.

Thus concludes the Sylvester Semester Part II. Thanks for reading. I'll return soon, I promise.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Escape Plan (2013)


Once upon a time, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were bitter rivals. As the two biggest action stars of the eighties, they was naturally some competition between them. Stallone himself has commented on how much he resented the Austrian superstar’s success. Eventually, that animosity would cool and the two would become friends. After all, they did launch Planet Hollywood together. Arnold even appeared in supporting roles in Sly’s “Expendables” series. With “Escape Plan,” the two nostalgic titans of action co-starred in a film together. Like many of the throwback action flicks in recent years, the film would flop domestically before becoming a big hit overseas.

Ray Breslin has spent his entire life in prison. On purpose. Breslin is placed into various prisons by the government and is paid to break out of them, exposing exploitable flaws in the system. Thus far, he has managed to escape from every prison he’s been in. For his latest mission, he’s abducted by masked men, placed in a helicopter and wakes up in a seemingly inescapable fortress called the Tomb. The Tomb is a prison based off Breslin's own designs. Teaming up with a fellow in-mate called Emil Rottmayer, Ray faces his greatest challenge, trying to escape the Tomb and avoid its sadistic warden.

It goes to show how astray the movie-going public has gone when a movie starring Sly and Arnold, formerly two of the biggest stars in the world, can underperform domestically. For action nerds, seeing the two stars together is a dream come true. “Escape Plan” acknowledges its leads' mythic status. Stallone’s Breslin is introduced being an intellectual badass. Arnold’s Emil gets a grand introduction. More then once, the film finds an excuse so the two guys can fight. Yet the stars aren’t just cashing paychecks. Sly is engaged with the material, making Breslin a likable guy who is always thinking and scheming. Arnold, meanwhile, is exhilarating. He’s all grins, bringing an impressive energy to the part. A moment, where he rants in German while locked in solitary confinement, is electrifying. (It’s also one of the few times Arnold spoke his native language on-screen.) Moreover, the two are great together, like in the scene where they give humiliating nicknames to the various faceless guards. It’s not high art but it’s clear both performers are having a blast, elevating a screenplay that was already pretty good.

That’s right, “Escape Plan” is surprisingly well written. Oh, it’s ridiculous. You can guess early on which one of Breslin’s associates has betrayed him. The various methods Ray uses to escape are as unlikely as the ones used to imprison him. You have to accept these things. Yet “Escape Plan” is shockingly well structured and paced. Watching the heroes figure out ways around and out of these seemingly inescapable scenarios is compelling. Probably my favorite scene in “Escape Plan” has Ray enacting a convoluted series of events to escape from solitary confinement, pumping bolts with a hand mirror and climbing up the insides of the prison's wall. The reveal about where the Tomb is located is pulled off fantastically. I was half expecting the place to be on the moon or something. Though goofy on its face, “Escape Plan” handles its story seriously, drawing the audience in.

For most of its run time, “Escape Plan” functions more like a thriller, acting solidly within the expected boundaries of the prison genre. There’s the evil warden, the sadistic guards, the rivalries within the block, gang members, and a prison riot before it’s over. In its last act though, “Escape Plan” becomes a joyous homage to the eighties action movies that made Sly and Arnie famous. Stallone is running and gunning through the innards of the prison. He beats up Vinnie Jones. The absolutely best moment in the film occurs when Schwarzenegger picks up a giant machine gun and starts mowing down bad guys. By the end, Sly is cracking one-liners and causing giant explosions. It’s a lot of fun.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are clearly the stars of the show. However, “Escape Plan” puts together a solid supporting cast. Jim Caviezel plays Hobbes, the warden with a clear grudge against Breslin. Adapting a vocal pattern reminiscent of Christopher Walken, Caviezel has a sinister twinkle in his eye as a comic book-style villain. Vinnie Jones’ guard is introduced beating an in-mate to death. Jones, who has made a career of playing heavies, certainly has no problem playing another vicious psychopath. Sam Neill has a surprise appearance as the prison’s doctor, bringing some gravitas to a nothing part. Vincent D’Onofrio plays another sleazy businessman type, happily hamming it up. The only distracting supporting player is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, cast against type as a computer hacker. Fiddy mugs furiously, facially and vocally, totally taking the audience out of the film every time he appears.

Maybe one of the reasons why I like “Escape Plan” so much is because I really didn’t expect it to be good. Plopped down in a non-extraordinary October release, with few positive reviews to its name, it’s not surprising it did poor business here in the States. Going in with few expectations revealed a movie that mixes smart and dumb in the best way, a ridiculous if compelling thriller that transforms into a supremely entertaining action flick. That’s a good thing. It’s less winking then “The Expendables” flicks and clearly isn’t a passion project like Sly’s “Rocky” or “Rambo” revivals. The middle ground between those axises – a really fun pop corn muncher – is an alright place to be. [7/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 3 outta 5]
[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [New Prison Inmate]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling


 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Bullet to the Head (2012)


With the come back success of “Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo,” and the “Expendables” films, Sylvester Stallone was suddenly back in the position of getting films greenlit with just his star power. At least, the kind of throw back action flicks that get released in January and February. “Bullet to the Head” could’ve been a comeback story for another familiar face. Walter Hill was behind such action classics as “Hard Times,” “The Driver,” “The Warriors,” “Southern Comfort” and “48 Hrs.” Though still active as a producer, Hill hadn’t directed a film since 2002’s mix martial arts minor classic “Undisputed.” Based off a French graphic novel series and greeted with a decent bit of hype, “Bullet to the Head” would disappoint critics and garner little attention from audience. How mediocre must a movie be to alienate the people its tailor made for?

The improbably named Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo is a hitman based out of Baton Rouge. Though he operates with a moral code of his own, he’s generally an off-putting, tough customer. After he spares the life of a prostitute during a standard hit, his long-time partner is murdered by a rival hitman. Their target, it turns out, was a dirty cop with information on shady local businessmen. Kwon, the partner to the dead man, arrives to investigate. Soon, Bobo and Kwon are working together to untangle what’s gone down. Meanwhile, the psychotic hitman is soon targeting Bobo personally.

“Bullet to the Head” feels a lot like the undistinguished flicks Stallone made simply for the paycheck back in the late eighties. In other words, if it had come out around the same time as “Tango and Cash” or “Over the Top,” action fans would consider it a classic. Of course, the eighties and the distinct qualities that decade brought to film ended a long time ago. “Bullet to the Head” isn’t that funny or charming. Mostly, the comparison is seen in Sly’s character. Jimmy Bobo is a hard man. An ex-con, he figures the people he assassinates have it coming, approaching wanton murder with no further thought. When he speaks at all, it’s usually in smart-ass quibs to his various partners or opponents. Despite being a simplistic sketch, the script still gives Bobo an unnecessary and overly verbose narration. This is the kind of thing Sly has done many times before. He doesn’t appear bored but he can’t make Bobo a compelling character.

Walter Hill basically invented the buddy cop subgenre, by writing “Hickey and Boggs” and directing “48 Hrs.” (For further bonus points, Joel Silver, who also produced “48 Hrs.” and “Lethal Weapon,” produced this one as well.) These clichés are also woven into “Bullet to the Head.” Sung Kang plays Detective Kwon. Kwon and Bobo are tossed together by fate, the hitman making a split-second decision to save the cop. Soon, the two are working together, albeit roughly. Kwon uses his cellphone to dig up clues and information. Bobo prefers to beat info out of people. Kwon is by the book, Bobo plays by his own rules. “Bullet to the Head” does break from buddy movie tradition. Though a mutual respect eventually forms, the two still kind of hate each other by the movie’s end. Stallone and Kang don’t have much in the way of chemistry.

The movie’s plot, about corrupt land developers trying to cover up evidence of their criminal connections, is totally disposable. The collection of bad dudes the movie presents aren’t very memorable. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays a South African sleaze, who accentuates his performance by waving a cane around. Christian Slater does seem to be having some fun as one of the primary crooks involved. The film’s real main villain is Jason Momoa’s Keegan. Casting a future action star – albeit one who still hasn’t produced an iconic character – to play against Stallone seems like an intentional move. Momoa plays Keegan as an indistinct psycho. He enjoys killing and does it with finesse but there’s no personable meat on this character’s bones. He’s a preening, murderous bad guy, totally lacking in heart or soul.

All right, so the hero’s nothing special, the script is disposable, and the supporting players don’t make an impression. Does “Bullet to the Head” at least feature some cool action scene? Sadly, even that aspect is mostly forgettable. Walter Hill’s attempt to adapt to modern day action movie conventions are awkward. A shoot-out in a parking garage, and a car chase that follows, is overly shaky and difficult to follow. A tussle between Sly and a random bad guy inside a Turkish bath is cool in conception but, once again, not smoothly executed. Momoa’s presence seems to center the film a little. A fight between Bobo and Keegan in a bar bathroom is alright. Momoa executing a tattoo parlor full of people features some solid action beats, such as a guy getting flipped into a jukebox machine. The final fight has the hero and villain dueling with fire axe, a clever choice the movie needed more of. Too often though, the shoot-outs degrade into uninspired sequences of gun going off and people falling down.

“Bullet to the Head” certainly isn’t the throwback to bad ass action cinema that it was hyped as. The pairing of a legendary action director like Hill and a legendary action star like Sly should’ve produced something great. Instead, “Bullet to the Head” is a middling, forgettable affair. Its pleasures are fleeting and the film seems designed to leave the viewer’s head as soon as it enters. The reviews were largely negative and the box office was uninspiring, even in the competition lacking month of February. It seems, only a few years out from his latest come back, Sly was already squandering his potential again. [5/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 3 outta 5]
[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Asshole Hitman]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Rambo (2008)


After Sylvester Stallone successfully resurrected Rocky for a final bout, it was inevitable that he would bring his other trademark character back for one more mission. The fourth entry in the Rambo series was even entitled “John Rambo” at one point, to match “Rocky Balboa’s” title. After cycling through half a dozen other titles – including ridiculous subtitles like “Pearl of the Cobra,” “In the Serpent’s Eye” and “To Hell and Back” – the film was released domestically with the hilariously curt title of “Rambo.” (It remained as “John Rambo” overseas and most fans call it “Rambo IV,” for clarity’s sake.) Though not as well received as “Rocky Balboa,” Rambo’s fourth adventure was still a hit, cementing that Stallone’s star power had been restored.

John Rambo has apparently spent the last twenty-one years in Thailand, capturing cobras for a local snake show to make ends’ meet. After seeing that his efforts as the ultimate soldier have only made the world worst, Rambo has become a loner and a cynic. That is until a group of Christian missionaries ask him to furry them into Burma. Once inside the war-torn country, the missionaries are captured by an especially cruel, sadistic general. Hoping to rescue the innocents, John Rambo has to go into the war zone once again.

The Rambo series went through some serious changes along the way. Beginning as a character-oriented thriller, it soon became a jingoistic action series. By part three, it was practically mindless. 2008’s “Rambo” looks to restore some of “First Blood’s” character-driven aspect. The film considers the psychology of someone like John Rambo. At story’s beginning, he’s given up on people. Apparently, a pretty blonde smiling at him is enough to convince him that some people are worthwhile. After realizing he must go back to war, “Rambo” enters its best scene. A montage devoted to John forging his new knife – more like a machete, this time – he monologues in voice over, realizing that killin’ is what he does. Ultimately, he decides potentially dying for somethin’ is better then living for nothin’. The ending has Rambo’s faith in humanity restored, as he seeks to reunite himself with his father, who must surely be in his nineties. It’s not a lot but, considering the “Rambo” series had degraded into shoot-em-ups by now, any introspection counts for something.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Rambo movie without some unnerving, right-wing politics. Despite obviously believing that war is hell, “Rambo” still seems disturbingly pro-violence. Rambo sneers at the missionary’s belief that they can change anything. The group’s desires to help people only gets them captured and tortured by the wicked Burmese military. After witnessing ghastly carnage, one of the missionaries embraces the way of violence, bashing an attacker’s head in with a rock. Moreover, “Rambo” is not an insightful examination of the atrocities in Burma. After portraying the Vietnamese as evil torturers in “First Blood Part II,” Stallone happily portrays the Burmese army as equally sadistic villains. It seems John Rambo is most happy while slaughtering Asians, regardless of country.

The film goes out of its way to portray the atrocities the villains commit. “Rambo” begins with a newsreel, showing actual footage of death and violence from the country. The next scene introduces the villain playing sadistic games with prisoners. Each gun shot results in a graphic burst of blood. A particularly sickening sequence is devoted to the military laying siege to a village. Women are raped. Children are shot, stabbed, and tossed into a burning building. Those who fight back are murdered with flame throwers or reduced to exploding body parts by grenades. To make it clear that General Tint, the primary antagonist, is extra evil, he’s also portrayed as a pedophile. Stallone’s quest for realism makes “Rambo” almost too bleak and unpleasant to work as populist entertainment.

Yet it’s clear why the writer/director piles on such graphic carnage. The bad guys must be so evil that it justifies Rambo’s equally monstrous retaliation. As far as action goes, 2008’s “Rambo” creates the kind of violence previously unseen in the genre. Rambo clears out enemies with his trademark bow, piercing heads and necks. He tears a man’s throat out with his bare hands. Before the movie even gets to the good stuff, Rambo blows up a hundred guys with a mine. After decapitating the gunner, he turns the cannon on the driver, reducing him to a spray of gore. From the jeep-mounted platform, Rambo cuts through an entire army. The camera lingers on enemy soldiers being cut in half by gunfire, heads exploding, huge holes blasted through bodies. He destroys a boat, a truck hauling more men, and hundreds of fighters. (Nobody seems to think to sneak up behind him.) It’s glorious action movie violence that I don’t think will be topped any time soon.

With the death of Richard Crenna in 2003, John Rambo lost his only consistent supporting cast member. “Rambo” can’t cook up any characters as lovable as Col. Troutman. If anything, the film’s new characters are some of its weakest additions. Julie Benz plays Sarah, the missionary that reaches Rambo’s heart. Benz mostly spends the film captured and panicking. Paul Schulze is an obnoxious wet blanket as the leader of the missionaries. In order to assists Rambo’s war on the genocidal military – as if he needs any help – a team of mercenaries accompany him. Some of these characters, such as Graham McTavis’ Lewis, are obnoxious and unlikable. Others, like Matthew Marsden’s School Boy, are just indistinct. The best among them is Tim Kang’s En-Joo, mostly thanks to Kang’s considerable charm. Ultimately, these characters could’ve been cut from the film and the story would practically be unaltered.

2008’s “Rambo” has some troubling undercurrents and its in-your-face violence is definitely distasteful and exploitative. Stallone’s direction is a little too shaky and he overdoes the slow-mo. Despite these flaws, “Rambo” features some incredibly intense action movie theatrics. It also manages to provide a satisfying conclusion to John Rambo’s story. That last factor made me question Stallone’s insistence on making a fifth movie. A final Rambo movie was discussed for years and was even given the awesome working title of “Last Blood.” Reportedly, this adventure would’ve seen John either waging war on Mexican drug cartels or a genetically engineered super soldier. Ultimately, Sly abandoned plans to continue the series, realizing Rambo’s war was finally over. I agree. 2008's "Rambo" provided massive action and an emotional end to the character's long journey. [7/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 4 outta 5]
[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music*
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Loner Killing Machine]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

*On the boat ride, one of the mercs sings a song that sounds Frank Stallone-esque enough for me


Monday, August 22, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Rocky Balboa (2006)


There was a time when jokes were often told about how long running and increasingly unlikely the “Rocky” series had become. Yet, by 2006, a sixth “Rocky” film was the last thing anyone expected. Sylvester Stallone’s career had flat-lined, with an embarrassing turn in the third “Spy Kids” movie being his most notable recent role. In the past, adversity has been a great inspiration to Stallone. Out of this tough time arose “Rocky Balboa.” The sixth appearance of Sly’s trademark character would become an unexpected commercial success, revitalizing a career most thought was over.

Rocky Balboa is all washed-up. Adrian, his inspiration, has died. He has a tense relationship with his son, Robert Jr., who seems uncomfortable standing in the star’s shadow. The former champion makes a decent living running an Italian restaurant, named for his late wife, and often regales customers with old stories. Current heavyweight champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon, is criticized for his perceived lack of heart, that his victories have been unearned. A sports channel runs a program were a computer determines who would win a fight between past and present champs. Such a match between Dixon and Balboa gives both fighters an idea. Soon, Rocky is back in the ring, outmatched by a fighter younger, faster, and stronger then him.

Sylvester Stallone was ahead of the curve. These days, movie studios are determined to mine eighties and nineties nostalgia for all its worth, creating reboots and remakes to every seemingly moribund franchise. “Rocky Balboa” is, naturally, awash in nostalgia. The film begins with Rocky at Adrian’s grave. The first act is devoted to Balboa and Paulie touring the original film’s events. Mickey’s gym is in disrepair. The ice rink were Rocky and Adrian had their first date has been torn down. The parts of Philadelphia Rocky once called home have become a ghetto. These scenes aren’t just here to remind viewers of what happened in the first film. They establish what Rocky has lost. They also reground the series, properly returning the franchise to the original film’s tone without falling to part five’s maudlin sentimentality.

With Adrian gone, “Rocky Balboa” finds a new heart for the series. Much of the film is focused on Rocky’s relationship with his son. Robert Jr. has fled from the world of celebrity and stardom that his father occupies. Instead of being in athleticism, he’s working in an office building. When Rocky tries to set up a friendly dinner with his son, people constantly butt in to say hi to the former champ. Rocky’s decision to get back into the ring for the first time in 21 years gives his son pause. This leads to a notable moment in the film, when Stallone delivers a monologue about trying to find your place in the world, about struggling to survive only for what you have, is one of the best sequences in the film. Previously played by Seargeoh and Sage Stallone, Milo Ventimiglia essays the part of Rocky Jr. here. Ventimiglia is a good foil for Stallone, a cynical and grounded counter to Rocky’s perpetually hopeful but hopeless personality.

In addition to revisiting many of the first film’s locations, “Rocky Balboa” also brings back an unexpected character. Little Marie, the troubled girl Rocky used to walk home, returns. Now an adult with a somewhat troubled kid of her own, she works a dead-end job as a bartender. A chance meeting has Rocky taking Marie’s son, Steps, under his wing. Soon, both mother and son are working at his restaurant. It’s an interesting story decision, showing that Rocky’s past and present acts of kindness have reverberated throughout his life. It also, narratively, gives Stallone someone else to play off of in the movie’s early half. Geraldine Hughes gives a sweet, thoughtful performance as Marie.

Aside from their ridiculous names, Mason Dixon and the first film’s take on Apollo Creed don’t have very much in common. This is, seemingly, a direct contrast. While Creed was a braggart that gave little thought to his challenger, Dixon is a down-to-Earth man of few words. He’s annoyed that his skill has been dismissed seemingly because he hasn’t had to fight for it. He sees his fight with Rocky as a chance to show off his abilities to an apathetic public. Playing the character is real life boxing champion Antonio Tarver. Tarver’s performance is low-key, keeping most of his emotion under the surface. While it’s obvious that Tarver isn’t a professional actor, he works for the film, his stoic quality contrasting nicely against the emotional Rocky.

Why would a 60 year old Rocky Balboa get back in the ring? He’s far too old, his body stiffened by arthritis. The movie has to jump through some narrative loops to justify Balboa being able to get a license. If Rocky’s life parallels Stallone’s – and it does – the story is about the man proving he’s not a joke. “Rocky Balboa” hits many of the familiar beats. There’s the expected training montage, still set to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” There’s the climatic boxing match, with Rocky taking countless hits. Seeing a Sylvester Stallone old enough to collect Social Security re-entering the boxing ring should be ridiculous. Instead, it’s inspiring. His age has only made Rocky even more of an underdog. Moreover, Rocky (and, by extension, Sly) wants this more then ever. This is made clear in a key moment. Knocked to the mat, Rocky argues with himself to keep fighting. Because that’s what he’s always done. Because the strive to fight is what has driven him his entire life. Though far from subtle, it’s an effectively touching moment.

Sylvester Stallone, of course, directs his umpteenth come back. Sly’s direction is still somewhat heavy handed. He’s traded slow-motion with black and white inserts and dramatic flashbacks. Still, “Rocky Balboa” is in many ways a rousing success. It’s a touching, inspiring film. After the underwhelming “Rocky V,” it’s the considered and touching send-off the iconic character deserves. The story of Rocky proving he could still go the distance, that he still has the eye of the tiger, reviving Sylvester Stallone’s career is appropriate. Don’t ring the bell, this ain’t over yet, he yelled. And it wasn’t. [8/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 4 outta 5]
[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Washed-Up Boxer]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling


Sunday, August 21, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Get Carter (2000)


In “Get Carter,” you’re essentially seeing Sylvester Stallone resigning himself to what his career was circa the year 2000. His latest bid for critical respectability, 1997’s “Cop Land,” did not work out the way he’d hoped. In a few years, he’d be starring in direct-to-video releases. Considering he’d co-headline 2001’s “Driven” with another actor, “Get Carter” would be his last leading role to get a theatrical release for quite a while. Sly would spend the next six years in the Hollywood wilderness, more punchline then superstar. A remake of a British cult classic from the seventies, “Get Carter” would flop with both critics and audiences.

Las Vegas mob enforcer Jack Carter doesn’t have many friends. He’s sleeping with his mob boss’ girlfriend but, otherwise, he’s fairly antisocial. When he receives the news that his brother is dead, he suddenly feels a responsible to his extended family. Upon returning to his childhood home town, he begins to suspect that his brother’s death was not accidental. While searching for answers, he makes enemies with the local criminal element. In order to avenge his brother’s murder, Carter uncovers a conspiracy that ties in with a local tech millionaire and some old enemies.

Narratively speaking, the remake of “Get Carter” follows the broad strokes of the original’s story. It condenses the convoluted plot of Mike Hodge’s 1971 original, clipping out a number of subplots. Yet many of the original’s elements, such as Carter’s opening car ride or his niece’s unfortunate fate, are maintained or updated. However, 2000’s “Get Carter” largely misses the point of Hodge’s original. Jack Carter’s personality is greatly softened, removing most of his moral ambiguity. He’s no longer a bad man doing bad things. Now he’s a sort of bad man doing mostly good things. The point of the ’71 original – the contrast between the deeply inglorious gangster violence with an idyllic small town setting – is wasted by placing the remake is an urban area and making the violence into standard action movie theatrics.

“Get Carter” is so clearly a product of the year 2000. The soundtrack is composed primarily of obnoxious techno music. Any time an action scene kicks in, wholly inappropriate songs will blare out of your TV's speakers. Stephen Kay’s direction is equally poor. The action scenes are filled with shaky-cam direction that induces sea sickness in viewers and annoyance in action fanatics. A car scene is especially difficult to follow, the camera spinning around spasmodically with little concern for coherence. Only a handful of Kay’s stylistic flourishes are interesting at all. Such as a scene where Sly rightfully guesses what his opponents will do next, within the cramped confines of an elevator. This was only Kay’s second film. He’d follow it up, five years later, with mall horror entry “Boogeyman” and a string of TV movies about serial killers.

As I previously mentioned, the dawn of the new millennium signaled the beginning of Sylvester’s lowest period as a star. You could see him being visibly disinterested in films like “Avenging Angelo” or “Driven.” “Get Carter” does not present the star with an especially compelling character. Jack Carter is gruff, all muscle, and single minded in his pursuit of vengeance. The few soft moments, such as when he’s conversing with his niece or his sister-in-law, allow Sly to show off his atrophied humanity, one of his best and most underrated attributes. Still, “Get Carter” is not an actor’s film. Stallone is essentially trotting out the tough guy act he utilized in a number of sub-par action flicks.

“Get Carter,” at the very least, has a loaded supporting cast. Mickey Rourke is at maximum sleaziness as the pornographer that emerges as the story’s primary villain. Alan Cumming has a decent part as an asshole tech tycoon. The part certainly calls upon his strength for being a squirmy weasel. John C. McGinley has a showy part as Carter’s eccentric partner, who quickly turns on him. Rachael Leigh Cook plays the imperiled niece. Though given little to do, Cook shines during the slower moments with Sly. Miranda Richardson, as the deceased brother’s wife, and Rhona Mitra, as a local prostitute, thanklessly go through the motions. That’s more then Gretchen Moll gets, as her only scene has her lounging in bed in lingerie. (She goes uncredited, as does Tom Sizemore as Stallone’s employer.) Lastly, Michael Caine – the original Jack Carter – appears in a few scene. It’s interesting to have such a direct contrast between Caine’s earlier days as an action star and his latter career as an avuncular character actor. Sadly, his role in the script is fairly inessential.

“Get Carter” is less outright bad then it’s just mediocre. How much you enjoy the remake seems to depend on how much you love the original. I only like, not love, Mike Hodge’s original film. Which is maybe why I’m so ambivalent to this version. Single moments are quite weak but the script is too stock parts to be offensive. Sadly, this kind of glacial mediocrity characterizes many films from this era of Stallone’s career. It would take a revisit to his two most iconic characters to give Sly’s career once last shot in the arm. [5/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 4 outta 5]
[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Anti-Social Mob Enforcer]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 94: Texas Chainsaw Massacres

Did you really think I'd wade through that Tobe Hooper retrospective last month and not get a podcast out of it? Yes, Mr. Mash and I finally covered the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" franchise, one of the few major horror series we haven't gotten to yet. In this fine hour of audio stimulation, we try to answer some of the mysteries of the series: Is the Cook a brother or a father? When exactly does "Texas Chainsaw 3D" take place? What was Kim Henkle smoking when he made "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation?" Will "All American Massacre" and "Leatherface" ever come out? Why is human flesh so delicious? Naturally, some of these quarries are more easily solved then others.



That'll be it for Film Thoughts tonight. The Sylvester Semester Part II will continue tomorrow. I promise.

Friday, August 19, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Daylight (1996)


I’ve talked about Sylvester Stallone’s experimental years before. With the end of the eighties, his status as surefire box office gold had ended as well. In hopes of maintaining his superstar clout, Stallone would try out multiple genres that were popular at the time. He did a “Die Hard” rip-off, a tough guys in tutus comedy, a superhero flick, a “Pulp Fiction”-inspired neo-noir, even an erotic thriller. “Daylight” was Stallone’s entry into the mid-nineties revival of disaster movies. The film is another from this period of Stallownage that did mediocre business at home but far better abroad. It’s another movie I remember most well as a poster in video store windows.

The setting is the Holland Tunnel, which runs under the Hudson River and connects New York City to New Jersey. A number of unlikely people gather inside the tunnel: A struggling playwright, a family in crisis, a bus of juvenile delinquents, an elderly couple, and more. A gang of jewel thieves are chased into the tunnel by cops. Unfortunately, a truck from a chemical company, hauling illegal toxic waste, is also in the tunnel. The thieves and the chemicals collide, causing a giant explosion. The resulting collapse traps the different people inside. Kit Latura, a disgraced former chief of New York’s EMS, decides to descend into the tunnel, in hopes of rescuing those inside.

Like the other genres Stallone would dabble in, the disaster movie has a defined series of troupes and clichés. One of those is a large ensemble cast, a divergent collection of characters brought together by fate and the disaster at hand. “Daylight” does not break from tradition. Like Charlton Heston or Dean Martin before him, Stallone plays the ordinary but brave man that becomes a hero. Sly’s Kit has the expected tragic backstory, as a botched terrorism drill under his command cost the lives of several men. By the story’s end, Latura has been redeemed by his acts of courage. At the time, Stallone made a premature announcement that “Daylight” would be his last action movie. He said he was getting too old for the genre. Perhaps as a swan song, “Daylight” has Sly doing some solid stunts, like a decently suspenseful sequence devoted to him climbing through a series of giant fans. Kit is mostly a standard hero part but Stallone brings some okay humanity to the role.

Like many disaster films, there are other characters that compete for Stallone’s hero for the status of protagonist. Amy Brenneman’s Maddy eventually emerges as Kit Latura’s love interest. A failed playwright fed up with her roach and rat infested apartment, Maddy displays an unlikely heroic streak. Such as when she wrestles a live wire with a pair of boots or outruns a wall of water. Brenneman is likable even if the character is stock parts. Viggo Mortensen appears as the movie’s decoy hero, a fitness celebrity and rock climber who meets a suitably ironic fate. I also like the troubled family, who are attempting to recover from the father’s infidelity. Jay O. Sanders plays the dad, who begins as an asshole but grows more likable as the story progresses. Karan Young shows off a decent caustic side as the mother, who develops a hopeless side during the disaster. Most notably, past and future scream queen Danielle Harris plays the teenage daughter, who documents the disaster with her camera.

It makes sense that some of these characters would be in this location. The disaster genre being what it is, there’s also a few characters whose presence in this plot are rather unlikely. Such as an elderly couple and their dog, who suffers from anxiety. (The dog, not the couple.) Colin Fox plays Roger, the old man, while Claire Bloom plays Eleanor, his wife. Their dog, Cooper, is a Weimaraner. It seems slightly implausible that an elderly couple and their pet, much less one with trouble traveling, would survive a tunnel exploding and collapsing. Bloom and Fox, who sometimes seem out of place in the film, naturally don’t make it to the end. Because blockbusters can blow up cities but dare not kill the dog, Cooper does make it to the end. The bus full of juvenile delinquents are another laughable addition. One of the kids has claustrophobia and another is a young pickpocket played by Sage Stallone. There’s also a token female and an asshole. As you’d expect, the kids are redeemed for all crimes by the end. It’s fairly silly stuff.

The primary threat in disaster flicks are usually the disaster. Which makes it odd that the films usually have some sort of antagonistic force. In “Daylight,” it’s the current chief of the EMS, played by Mark Rolston. While Kit wants to rescue the people in the tunnel, Rolston assumes they are dead and plans to flood the tunnel by digging into it. This is a fairly silly subplot and only takes up a few scenes. The other people on the surface are more helpful. There’s Vanessa Bell Calloway’s Grace, a dispatcher with an improbable islander accent. Her boyfriend is Frank, a cop played by Dan Hedaya, who is trapped inside the tunnel. Frank is another one of the film’s noble sacrifices, whose eventual fate provides “Daylight” with its best emotional beat. How everyone comes together to rescue Hedaya’s character is actually rather inspiring.

“Daylight” is the work of director Rob Cohen, who previously made “DragonHeart” and would find his widest success with “The Fast and the Furious” and “xXx.” As those credits suggest, Cohen packs the film full of explosions. As a special effects extravaganza, the film is most diverting. The initial explosion and collapse of the tunnel is an effective sequence, feeling appropriately chaotic. Any time the story gets too slow, Cohen throws in another explosion, fireballs ripping through the tunnel on multiple occasions. As the tunnel starts to flood, “Daylight” also packs in a number of effective water gags. Stallone places explosives inside a waterfall, which leads to himself and Brenneman outrunning a rolling gas tank. Much of the latter half of the film is set underwater, as the characters try to swim to safety, above the ever rising torrents. My favorite moment from this half is pays off on an earlier scene concerning rats. For its climax, “Daylight” combines both interests, as the main characters are saved from drowning by a big ass explosion. That’s the kind of thing that probably only works in movies.

“Daylight” is a decently entertaining popcorn muncher while you’re watching it. The film partakes freely of the clichés of the genre, making it a familiar experience for anyone well versed in disaster flicks. This quality, which makes it mildly entertaining while in progress, also makes it deeply forgettable once the end credits roll. (Which also, by the way, feature a sickeningly sincere love ballad called “Whenever There is Love.”) It’s also not a great display for Sly’s abilities, as he’s acting merely as a pawn for a standard script. While other ‘90s disaster movies, like “Twister” or “Volcano,” remain lovably dumb points of nostalgia, “Daylight’ quickly faded from the public’s memory. [6/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 3 outta 5]
[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Disgraced Paramedic]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

Thursday, August 18, 2016

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER PART II: Rocky V (1990)


The “Rocky” series was hugely financially successful and beloved in the seventies and eighties. This, however, didn’t stop people from making fun of the increasingly unlikely story turns the series would take throughout the Reagan administration. Over the course of four films, Rocky Balboa went from a Philly mook who got a lucky chance to the man who defeated Communism with the power of his punching. Maybe Stallone was aware of the affect the series’ changes had on the reputation of the films and himself. For “Rocky V,” he endeavored to take his most iconic character back to his roots. John G. Avildsen returned to direct. The script, meanwhile, hearkened back to the original film’s character driven tone. “Rocky V” was meant to be the grand finale for the ever-popular series. Instead, it would become the lowest grossing entry in the franchise.

Following his punishing bout with Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa begins to feel the toll the years of pugilism has taken on his body. Repeated blows to the head has caused him to develop brain damage, effectively ending his boxing career. Paulie’s mismanaging of the family’s finances, meanwhile, has caused Rocky and Adrian to loose their fortune. Soon, the family is back on the streets of Philadelphia. Rocky’s son, Robert Jr., takes this the hardest. Rocky resists offers to re-enter the ring and instead begins to mentor Tommy Gunn, a promising young boxer. Tommy, however, is not as loyal as Balboa is.

It’s clear that Stallone’s goal with “Rocky V” was to bring Balboa back down to Earth. Within the opening half-hour, he’s retired from boxing and has lost his millions. He dons his black hat and jacket again, the story returning to Philadelphia. This is a smart idea on paper, especially after the excesses of parts three and four. But the execution leaves something to be desired. To see Rocky go from convincing all of the Soviet Union to cheer for him to stammering his ways through the streets of Philly makes for a disconcerting contrast. Moreover, Stallone’s script reveals a previously unseen mawkish side. In flashbacks, we see Mickey detail his love for Rocky and give his student a pendent of a boxing glove. The film is primarily concerned with the relationships between the characters, fathers and sons, but handles this in an awkward, heavy-handed fashion. It seems, after a decade of fanciful overindulgence, Sly was unable to recapture the naturalistic elements of the original.

Removing Rocky from the boxing ring removes the conflict from the story. Instead, the protagonist shifts into a passive role. The actual boxing is done by Tommy Gunn, the young boxer Rocky mentors. The obvious plan was to shift Rocky into a Mickey-style role. This doesn’t work for a few reasons. Gunn is not a compelling character. Driven by anger based in an abusive childhood, Gunn is all bluster and little heart. Tommy Morrison’s acting as Gunn vacillates between ridiculously over-the-top and inexpressibly flat. The story bends in odd directions to justify Gunn’s role. Rocky inviting the kid so totally into his life, even into his home, seems unlikely. These factors cause Gunn’s eventual betrayal of Rocky to lack impact. He trades Rocky’s heart-and-soul approach for the money grubbing ways of George Washington Duke, a fight promoter obviously inspired by Don King. Gunn seemingly goes from being Balboa’s trusted student to his sworn enemy over the course of a montage.

That Rocky has a somewhat fatherly relationship with Tommy Gunn is intentional. This is meant to mirror the other main plot thread of the film: Rocky’s relationship with his actual son. Rocky Jr. has seemingly aged five years in-between movies, so the part could be played by Stallone’s own son, Sage. Sadly, Sage is nearly as awkward a performer as Tommy Morrison. His take on the character is petulant and whining. The audience is utterly apathetic to Junior’s adventures at school, which has him standing up to bullies and befriending a girl. (This includes getting a really embarrassing earring.) Rocky ignoring his son during a time of crisis, to support the brutish Gunn, seems out of character for the loving, family-first Balboa. The two eventually make up mid-way through the film, the script awkwardly disposing of the plot point early on.

In the years between winning a Best Director Oscar for “Rocky” and making “Rocky V,” John G. Avildsen had mostly occupied himself with the “Karate Kid” trilogy and flicks like “Lean on Me.” The documentary edge Avildsen brought to the original is almost entirely absent from this fourth sequel. You get occasional peaks of it, such as sweeping shots devoted to the streets of Philadelphia, set to then-modern rap music. Usually, Avildsen deploys a heavy handed style, making extended use of montages and flashing imagery. This is most apparent during the climax, a street fight between Rocky and Tommy Gunn. While down on the ground, Rocky sees images of Mickey cheering him on. It’s a technique that borders on obnoxious, being distracting at the very least.

“Rocky V’s” heart was in the right place. It probably would’ve been easy for Stallone to continue the crowd-pleasing formula utilized in the middle sequels. (Though Rocky was running out of mentors to avenge…) Instead, the star and filmmaker decided to get back to the franchise’s roots. Maybe Stallone was hungry for critical respect, after spending most of the eighties making glorious, populist trash. However, both Stallone and Avildsen lack the graceful touch that made the original a classic. The film was laughed at by critics and attracted a smaller audience. Even Sly later expressed disappointment in it. Originally meant to conclude with Rocky’s death, everyone got cold feet at the last minute. Can you imagine the punching bag of the franchise being the definitive end of Rocky’s story? That would’ve made “Rocky V” an even bigger bummer. [5/10]

[THE STALLOWNAGE OF SLY: 5 outta 5]
[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Washed-Up Athlete]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling