Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2014)

19. Burying the Ex

In 2004, “Shaun of the Dead” entered the phrase “zom-rom-com” – zombie romantic comedy – into the pop culture lexicon. While a handful of other films attempted to combine romance, comedy, and zombies afterwards (notably the literally entitled “Zombie Honeymoon”), it remained a largely unexplored subgenre... Until 2014. For whatever reason, a full decade after “Shaun” came out, three zom-rom-coms came out around the same time. There was “Life After Beth,” a quirky and genuinely funny take on the concept. Last was “Nina Forever,” the goriest and most erotically charged of the three. In the middle was “Burying the Ex.” Obviously the weakest of the three, Joe Dante was somehow persuaded to direct it.

Max is a worker in a Halloween costume shop, who dreams of starting his own business someday. He's currently dating Evelyn. The two claim to love each other, and have a lot of enthusiastic sex, but their relationship is strained. Evelyn is a control freak who forces Max to conform to her vegan lifestyle and dismisses his dreams and interests. After meeting Olivia, a perky malt shop owner that he immediately connects with, he's convinced to break up with Evelyn. Right before doing so, she's struck by a bus. The day before she died, the couple had unknowingly made a wish on a demonic magical lamp to never be apart. Just as he's ready to move on with Olivia, Evelyn rises from the grave, as an undead – and extremely clingy – zombie.

There's simply no getting around the fact that “Burying the Ex” is the among the most sexist movies I've ever seen. Let's start with the character of Evelyn, even before she turns into a zombie. She is a grotesque caricature of an evil woman. She wants to micro-manage and control every aspect of Max's life, down to his diet. When she moves in with him, she completely redoes the apartment, destroying all his beloved movie posters in the process. She continuously puts down and belittles his own dreams and hobbies. The minute he even begins talking with another woman, she becomes ridiculously jealous and angry. She's also manipulative, mentioning her dead mother every time Max tries to push back on her behavior. Evelyn doesn't act like this because “Burying the Ex” is a sensitive portrayal of being trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. Instead, it's a sleazy sex comedy that delights in making the bitchiest bitch girlfriend that has ever lived.

The film's blatant sexism is evident in other elements. Look at Travis, Max's philandering half-brother. Travis is an unshaven pig who lives in an apartment decorated with velvet paintings of porn stars. Despite his slovenly ways, he regularly and inexplicably has sex with centerfold models. He's introduced in the aftermath of a threesome, since he callously uses Max's apartment as his shaggin' shack. The character uses words like “poon,” “nut,” and “bang” unironically. He enjoys making women uncomfortable, bragging about getting a boner from watching a softcore skin flick. By the way, what job does this Lothario have? Swinging a sign outside a business, giving him an opportunity to cat-call innocent women. This behavior is portrayed as wacky and lovable, Travis being a goofy comic sidekick. Instead of the utter scumbag he obviously is.

Keep in mind, most of this blatantly sexist stuff is totally aside from the plot of Evelyn becoming a zombie. The “zom-com” part of the film's equation is no less impressive. Once Evelyn returns as an undead creature, the film begins to rely on gory and grotesque slapstick. Evelyn falls and twists her neck graphically, before standing up and straightening it. She vomits embalming fluid onto Max. Her abdominal region collapses while performing yoga. She kisses Max, putrid slime connecting their lips. It's the cheapest physical comedy, all based in how physically repulsive Max finds his girlfriend suddenly. Worst yet, Ashley Greene – stuck with the worst part in the movie – seems deeply uncomfortable with the physical comedy.

Ultimately, “Burying the Ex” is not a very good zombie movie either. The method of resurrection seen in the film – a Halloween store trinket that functions like real magic – is introduced and operates with no further explanation or thought. Despite claiming she'll live forever, Evelyn continues to rot after returning to life. Her skin peels, her eyes become paler, and flies gather around her head yet she never slows down. In fact, she's gifted with special abilities, seen in embarrassing scenes where she shattered boards with super strength and speaks in a deeper, demonic voice. When the film inevitably lurches towards brain munching, it does so with the dopiest and laziest puns imaginable.

The sexism of “Burying the Ex” also extends to Max's relationship with Olivia. See, if Evelyn is the stereotypical mean bitch girlfriend, Olivia is the cliched “cool girl” replacement. She is the most ingenuine creation, a facile nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. She is into all the same geeky bullshit as Max, understanding all his references. The two initially bond over knowing what “Fruit Brute” is. Also, she wants to have sex with him immediately. She exists not as a fully formed character but as a compliment to Max's (deeply shallow) personality. Yeah, Anton Yelchin and Alexandra Daddario have decent chemistry but Daddario could have crackling chemistry with a tree. She is making the most of a terribly thin part.

Anton Yelchin was a charming performer who left us far too soon. His interest in starring in low budget genre films from interesting filmmakers sometimes had him starring in “Green Room” or “Thoroughbreds” and sometimes had him starring in “Odd Thomas” or this movie. Because, no matter how appealing a performer Yelchin might've been, he couldn't have saved this one. Max is not a likable character. The story has him pursuing Olivia while trying to keep Evelyn's continued existence a secret from her. Which just makes it look like he's cheating on one or both of them. While less obviously lascivious than his half-brother, he's just as big a jerk as any other character in the film. He talks about shaving his taint in one scene, for Christ's sake.

Not that we needed any other proof that “Burying the Ex” is the most puerile of sexist, nerd wish fulfillment fantasy but look at the jobs the characters have. Max works in a tiny costume shop, that seems to be partially seasonal. He appears to be the shop's only employee. He frequently leaves the shop unoccupied for hours. And yet he can afford rent for a spacious apartment? In Los Angeles? Similarly, Evelyn has the nebulous job of “blogger” at some vague company devoted to environmentalism. She too can leave her job seemingly at any time in the day. Olivia runs and operates a hipster malt shop with a horror theme that never sees any customers until the end of the movie. She can also leave her business unoccupied for hours on end. Did the person who wrote this movie ever actually hold down a real job? I know I'm overthinking it but, Jesus Christ, it's distracting. Did a twelve year old write this?

As different as all of 2014's movies about zombie girlfriends were, each one is united by the exact same subtext. They use the concept of an undead girlfriend as a metaphor for a relationship that refuses to end, of one partner clinging to a love that is obviously dead. Evelyn is obviously the clingy one in “Burying the Ex,” as the film rarely judges Max's cowardice and refusal to confront his abusive partner. Near the end of the film, “Burying the Ex” steps back and addresses this subtext, when Max frankly tells Evelyn that things went sour with them even before she was hit by a bus. It's a moment that nearly generates some pathos, and probably would've in a better movie. Naturally, “Burying the Ex” immediately crashes back into sophomoric and vulgar slapstick right after this moment is over.

So is there anything to like about “Burying the Ex?” The movie made me laugh exactly three times. The first occurs when Max flips through a book detailing various ways to combat the undead. His glib and off-screen reactions to the obscure methods suggested made me chuckle. Another mildly funny moment comes when Max discusses ending Evelyn's undead existence with Travis. When he suggests shooting her, Max glumly admits he's against firearms. Lastly, during Olivia struggles with Evelyn, the zombie's blunt utterance of “You bitch” after being stabbed in the head was sort of funny. But that's it. Otherwise, “Burying the Ex” is just dispiriting and unfunny.

So what exactly attracted Joe Dante to this material? Considering his second “Masters of Horror” episode, “The Screwfly Solution,” was a biting critique of sexism, it's hard to say. Maybe the script reminded him of the sex comedies he edited back in his New World Pictures days. As in those films, “Burying the Ex” never misses a chance to oogle the partially exposed bodies of its female characters. (Though it does so without any of the charm of seventies sexploitation.) Or maybe it was just the copious classic horror references in the film. Clips from “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” “The Brain That Wouldn't Die,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “Whip and the Body,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “The Beast from Haunted Cave” are shown on-screen. If you look underneath the dumb-ass comedy and unnerving sexism, “Burying the Ex” does show a cute love of classic horror and Halloween. But that's about the only thing connecting it to Dante's other films, save for the obligatory Dick Miller cameo.

Or maybe it was simply a matter of getting to make a real movie again. After “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” flopped, willing or not, Dante was ejected from the studio system. He's mostly occupied his time directing television, like early Netflix show “Splatter” or the occasional episode of “Hawaii Five-0.” A chance to make an actual feature was probably tempting and maybe the pay was decent too. Whatever the reason, I wish Joe had changed his mind. “Burying the Ex” is an utterly dire motion picture, gross in all the wrong ways and truly lacking in genuine entertainment value. [Grade: F]

Like many of the eighties horror masters, Joe Dante has had trouble getting projects funded. For a brief while, he was attached to a dire-sounding "Twilight"-esque call "Monster Love" that ended up falling through. A dream project of his, one he still talks about from time to time, is "The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes," a biopic about Roger Corman's time experimenting with psychedelic drugs while making "The Trip." (At one point, Quentin Tarantino expressed interest in playing Corman, which would probably be terrible.) I still hope that one gets made someday, especially since Dante recently a stage reading of the script. In the meantime, Dante seems to occupy his spare time with website/Youtube series "Trailers from Hell."

Of course, Dante does have a new movie coming out this year. Part of one anyway. "Nightmare Cinema" is another horror anthology, about scary stories being shown to people trapped inside a spooky old movie theater, with Mickey Rourke as the Cryptkeeper figure. I was was ready to dismiss "Nightmare Cinema" as simply this year's indie horror anthology until I realized Mick Garris' involvement, and the stacked list of names behind the camera, essentially makes "Nightmare Cinema" "Masters of Horror: The Movie." Granted, that's no guarantee of quality. Garris is a divisive talent even on a good day. The other directors involved - Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade, Alejandro Bruges - are hardly the most consistent talent either. But I am sort of excited for this one. It'll be coming to Shudder in June.

And that's it for the Joe Dante Director Report Card! While I love many of Dante's films, this ended up feeling like a very long, tiring project. Maybe I should've skipped those "Howling' sequels? Nevertheless, it's done now. Come back tomorrow for the start of another exciting project!

Monday, April 29, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: The Howling: Reborn (2011)

“Howling III” featured a self-aware joke. The female lead got a job acting in a werewolf movie called “Shapeshifters Part 8,” Phillipe Mora correctly guessing that more “Howling' sequels would follow his. After “New Moon Rising” baffled all who saw it, and the direct-to-video horror market starting to favor cheaper kinds of monsters, “The Howling” series appeared to be truly over for sixteen years. That's when some producers realized they had to fulfill the prophecy and create an eighth entry in the long-sleeping werewolf series. “The Howling: Reborn” would tear its way onto DVD shelves in 2011. After over a decade of hibernation, did the “Howling” franchise show any appreciable improvement?

“Reborn” claims to be adapted from Gray Brandner's second “Howling” novel but, in the proud tradition of this series, has nothing to do with any of the previous “Howling” movies. This film focuses in on Will Kidman, a teenager about to graduate high school, whose mother mysteriously disappeared after he was born. Will is bullied at school, has few friends, and is ignored by the girl he likes. Yet fate tosses him and Eliana together anyway. While at a party, he's pursued by a hairy beast. His dad is seduced by a strange woman. Weird shirtless dudes start to hassle Will at school. It turns out he's being chased by werewolves, including his absent mom, on account of being a lycanthrope himself. Will and Eliana are trapped in the school after hours and must fight against the creatures to survive.

The “Howling” series was not revived in the early 2010s because someone thought the world was nostalgic for all those shitty sequels. No, it's very clear what trend “Howling: Reborn” was hoping to capitalize on. It's a film focused on high schoolers, specifically a disaffected teen who suddenly discovers he's special. His romance with Eliana occupies a lot of the film, including a ridiculous scene where she offers to take his virginity in the middle of being chased by monsters. As if the connection couldn't be more obvious, his evil mom's werewolf minions are hunky dudes who never wear shirts. “Howling: Reborn” was clearly hoping to ride the coattails of “Twilight,” with a little “Harry Potter” thrown in too. (Will even wears similarly nerdy glasses.) Because the audience for Y.A. fiction and cheap eighties werewolf movies clearly has a lot of overlap.

In its own way, “Reborn” is just as cheap and ugly as the worst of the eighties “Howling” sequels. The film attempts to replicate the visual palette of “Twilight' as well. So all the scenario has a washed-out and gray color to it. There's a number of very unimpressive slow motion shots, usually to emphasize the underwhelming power of the werewolf. Most embarrassingly, an incredibly obvious dummy is even tossed down a staircase in one scene. The film's emulation of “Twilight” and its disciples extends to the soundtrack, which is full of groan-worthy covers of established pop/rock hits. An dreary, acoustic version of “Don't Fear the Reaper” is especially ear-splitting.

So it almost goes without saying that, on a scripting level, “Howling: Reborn” is really fucking stupid. Will, listlessly brought to life by Landon Liboiron, chimes in throughout the film with a deeply unnecessary and obnoxiously obvious narration. During any lull in the story, Will's senseless interior monologue will usually pipe in. The script leaps through the convoluted hoops to justify setting the entire second half of the film in the high school, doubtlessly a budgetary decision. Will's mom emerging as the film's villain is so grotesquely overwrought, that it starts to feel uncomfortably personal. The only clever thing about the script does is update the original “Howling's” ending, by having an on-camera werewolf transformation becoming a viral video. And even that functions more like a lame sequel hook than anything else.

As disconnected with the rest of “The Howling” series as it is, “Reborn” does maintain the sequel tradition of not having nearly enough werewolf action. The wolves largely stay in their hunky-shirtless-guy forms until about the last half-hour. At that point, they transform into brown ape-like creatures that paw at their intended victims. Will, his mom, and a few other characters turn into uninspired werewolf designs near the end. At least, I think the designs are uninspired. In the werewolf fight that follows, the camera never fucking stops moving, making it impossible to get a good look at the beasties. One can only assume that this obnoxious stylistic quirk was an intentional choice to cover up some subpar effects.

Congratulations are in order. “Howling: Reborn” manages to suck more than any previous “Howling” sequels. Oh, sure, it's more competently made than “New Moon Rising.” It technically delivers more werewolf action than “The Original Nightmare” or “The Rebirth.” The story is less incoherent than “Your Sister is a Werewolf” or “The Marsupials.” Yet none of that matters when the movie is such a tedious slog to get through. At least those sequels, shitty as they unquestionably are, were actually attempting to be horror movies. “Reborn” wants to be a trendy teen flick. It's a cheap knock-off of then-popular fads executed with zero heart.

“Reborn” did not spawn the further sequels it clearly was hoping for. But don't think for a minute the misbegotten “Howling” series is truly dead, because now some damned soul is trying to get a remake off the ground. If that ever enters production, it'll have to work to be as mercenary and soulless as “The Howling: Reborn.” [3/10]

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2009)

18. The Hole

At the end of the last decade, there was a brief resurgent in interest in 3D films. James Cameron and a bunch of other producers thought 3D was going to change the way we watch movies. Instead, it cause theaters to charge more to watch a blurrier version of movies. During this rush of interest in three-dimensional film, Dante was able to get his first feature in seven years funded. As frequently happens with independent films, “The Hole” had trouble getting released. By the time “The Hole” was released, the 3D fad was over. This left the movie few release avenues to take advantage of. That “The Hole” would not be widely seen is disappointing, as reviewers agreed it was Dante's best film in quite a while.

Teenager Dane Thompson, his little brother Lucas, and their mom have just moved to the small, midwestern suburb of Bensenville. Dane is annoyed by leaving his old friends behind and the lack of things to do around town. Aside from the pretty girl next door, named Julie, he's bored. When arguing with Lucas, Dane accidentally uncover a strange trap door in the basement. Undoing the locks, the trio of kids discover it's a seemingly bottomless pit. Afterwards, strange things begin to happen around the house. Lucas is stalked by a creepy clown doll. Julie keeps seeing a mysterious little ghost girl. Dane soon realizes that, by opening the hole, they have unleashed a dark force into their home.

“The Hole” is an unapologetic example of “throwback horror.” The movie wears its influences on its sleeve. The premise plays a bit like a kid-friendly version of Kathe Koja's “The Cipher.” One scene in particular, where Dane sinks an entire spool of fishing wire into the hole without hitting bottom, was definitely inspired by the Mel's Hole urban legend. There's a spooky clown doll, an element obviously taken from “Poltergeist,” while the idea of kid stumbling upon a portal to hell under their house recalls “The Gate.” (And, Dante being Dante, he makes sure to include some classic horror references, such as a brief appearance from Gorgo and a sign featuring the words “Hands of Orlac.”) None of this is a complaint, as the film's mixture of kid-friendly adventure and spooky but not defanged thrills is a breath of fresh air in a film landscape that rarely caters to the audience of horror-loving young ones.

Inevitably, any movie paying homage to kid-friendly horror will recall Dante's own eighties classic. “The Hole” is awash in Dante's classic themes. Much like “Gremlins” or “Explorers,” the film's idyllic small town setting is soon beset by something darker. As the Hole calls upon the fears of the home's inhabitants, it ends up drudging up the dark side of small town life. Like an abusive parent or a tragic accidental death that nobody talks about. “Gremlins,” in particular, was an obvious influence. Especially in the scene where a boy is attacked by a cackling, diminutive horror. The scenes of an older brother bantering and arguing with his little brother also reminds me of “Matinee.” It's refreshing to see the director's interests are still so strong after so many years.

“The Hole” is definitely a kids' movie, even if it has more in common with “The Monster Squad” than “Monster House.” Like a lot of kiddy horror flicks, the film has a moral. The Hole causes the family's worst fears to manifest. Naturally, the best solution to conquering these phantoms is to stand up to them. Yet the approach makes this typical kid-friendly message come off a little deeper than usual. Dane's fear is his abusive dad, who used to yank him from the closest he'd hide in and whip him with a belt. Dane's especially haunted by an incident where their dad left Lucas bruised, something the younger boy can't even remember. Julie, meanwhile, is traumatized by seeing her childhood best friend die. These deeply traumatizing events resurfaces in their lives, like bad memories that never go away. The horrific experience has them overcoming this emotional trauma, making “The Hole” a deceptively deep film about living with PTSD.

Unlike so many kids films that feel insincere and insincere, “The Hole” nails the dueling feelings of sibling rivalry and love. Dane and Lucas annoy the shit out of each other. The edgy teenager wants to hide in his room and doodles in his notebook. The little brother wants someone to pay attention to him, to play basketball or games with him. So the two get on each other's nerves, acting out and frequently roughhousing. Yet they also genuinely love each other, seen in the sweet scenes where Dane allows Lucas to sleep on his bedroom floor. The familial relations in general are handled really well. Dane's mom adorably calls her son “Smudge,” clearly showing him affection even if her job doesn't have her at home as often as she'd like to be. It's cute stuff and well handled.

Helping sell this emotional connection is a likable young cast. Chris Massoglia would star in “The Vampire's Assistant” after this, which seemed to prime him for teen movie stardom. While Massoglia has the heartthrob good looks, he's not so handsome that it's distracting. Moreover, he's also a pretty good actor. Ready with a cocksure smile but able to convey deeper emotion, he's a solid lead to build the film upon. Nathan Gamble is never annoying as Lucas. In fact, he's charming, maintaining that childish energy without overdoing it. Haley Bennett has the right balance of beauty, smart alack wit, and deeper pathos as girl-next-door Julie. You really enjoy watching these three play off each other and have adventures.

The cast is fairly close knit, focusing on these central characters. However, there are a few prime supporting parts here. Teri Polo comes off as so genuinely sweet as Susan, the boys' mom. She shows a real warmth towards both of them while also having more personality than the part probably required. Bruce Dern, making his third appearance in a Dante film, has a nice role as Creepy Carl, the previous owner of the accursed house. Dern clearly has a good time getting to ham it up as the seemingly crazy old man, even if the part doesn't amount to much more than exposition. Though the film is disappointingly low on Dante's regular players – No Robert Picardo or Belinda Belaski – but he does sneak a silent Dick Miller in as a pizza delivery guy.

Something really admirable about “The Hole” is that it's a horror movie totally suitable for the twelve-and-under crowd, with no gore or explicit content, without being completely fangless. Dante's direction is nicely atmospheric, as he makes the shadowy corners of the suburban home really pop. A nice subtle effect has the illusions cast by the hole moving in jerky, unnatural fashions. This gives them a very eerie appearance, especially when they're shown crawling in and out of the pit. The encounters with the spooky ghost girl probably should've been campy and lame, as it's the kind of scare a hundred other movies have done before. Yet Dante engineers it well, building suspense, making good use of shadows, and not limping off with a weak jump scare.

By the far the best of “The Hole's” spooky scenes are those devoted to the clown doll. Evil clowns may be an overdone horror cliche but this is a clever take on it. The jester doll has a habit of appearing suddenly in locations where it's not wanted, a nice touch. This builds towards Lucas and the small demon having a stand-off. There's a little CGI in this scene but the doll is mostly animated using stop motion, giving it an especially unearthly and eerie sense of movement. The way it cackles and taunt its intended victim reminds me of “Gremlins” in the best way, Dante clearly enjoying a chance to revisit his favorite style of monster. (The little kind.) It's another really well shot scene too, in a dark blue basement flooded with darkness.

However, “The Hole” can only resist the ease and scope of CGI for so long. In its last third, the heroes inevitably descend down into the Hole. They arrive in a shadowy netherworld that has a kind of cool expressionistic look to it. Soon though, the film starts to pile on the deliberately artificial environment to a point that it becomes distracting. By the end, when Dane is floating through a foggy shadow-world full of drifting platforms, the movie had lost sight of itself a little bit. The movie goes big at the end when it should've gone even smaller than before, really circling in on the trauma at the center of the story.

For a movie designed to be watched in 3-D, “The Hole” is thankfully low on the kind of eye-gouging you expect from this particular gimmick. Yeah, there's a few sweeping camera shots, leading us down into the Hole or through some piping. That floating scene at the end is especially guilty of this. Yet, otherwise, “The Hole” seems to work just as well when watched flat as when experienced in three dimensions. Dante uses the technology well, rarely drawing undue attention to it.

As I said, “The Hole” ended up sitting on the shelf for a three years, eventually getting a small release after the public's interest in this new 3-D had already peaked. Combined with a generic title – at least two other films share it – and it seems the film was generally overlooked. Yet I would encourage Dante fans to definitely check it out. It has the spirit and hum of his eighties classic while providing a similar sense of fun. Those who have watched it generally agree that “The Hole” is a return to form after quite a while in the wilderness for the filmmaker. [Grade: B+]

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2006)

17. Trapped Ashes

The horror anthology has a long history. 1945's “Dead of Night” is generally credited with popularizing the concept. However, there are even earlier examples, with “Eerie Tales” and “Waxworks” dating back to the silent era. Maybe it's because horror is so well suited to the short story format. Maybe horror fans just like getting as much bang for their buck as possible. Either way, the film style has never truly gone away. It's seen something of a revival in popularity in the last fifteen years. An indie horror anthology with another crop of semi-well known genre directors pops up almost every year now. This year's model is “A Field Guide to Evil” while past years have brought us “V/H/S,” “The ABCs of Death,” “Southbound,” and quite a few others.

Yet this modern trend of indie horror anthologies has a largely overlooked predecessor. “Trapped Ashes” was released to little attention in 2006. It gathered together Joe Dante, Ken Russell, Sean S. Cunningham, and Monte Hellman to tell a collection of stories, all from unknown writer Dennis Bartok. While television series “Masters of Horror” or Asian collection “Three.... Extremes” were likely inspirations – for the way the film gathers together established horror directors and its general Asian atmosphere – “Trapped Ashes” is obviously an extended homage to Amicus' long running series of horror omnibus films, with set-up and ending that recalls “Tales from the Crypt” and “Dr. Terror's House of Horrors.” (Also like “Masters of Horror,” it too often relies on explicit nudity and sex, sometimes feeling like a especially macabre Skinemax flick.)

Dante directs the framing device, which establishes the general set-up. “Trapped Ashes” begins with a meek tour guide leading a group of tourists through a Hollywood backlot. They are led to a spooky old mansion, the set of a classic horror film from the sixties called "Hysteria." Though the guide discourages them, they go inside anyway. After falling through some trap doors, the gang is locked inside a secret room. The tour guide encourages the group to tell horrifying personal stories about themselves, mirroring "Hysteria's" plot. This wraparound sets up a theme of the film industry which connects two out of the four stories.

It seems sort of odd that “Trapped Ashes” would pull in its biggest name director just to have him direct the framing device. Yet Dante's segment still proves to be one of the best in the film. Dante perfectly captures the classic horror atmosphere of the spooky old mansion setting. The building has a deliberate expressionistic look to it. We can see this in a shot of a winding staircase or the harsh angles of the central room where the story are told. Bartok's script also name-drops Mario Bava, so Dante throws in some accompanying surreal neon lighting. In case you missed that Dante directed this part, he casts an appropriately spooky but unassuming Henry Gibson as the tour guide and gives Dick Miller a cameo.

The film's first proper story is “The Girl with the Golden Breasts,” directed by Ken Russell. (This would be Russell's final theatrical credit, though he would direct two more shorts before his 2011 death.) The segment follows Phoebe, a struggling actress. Despite only being in her late twenties, Hollywood has already deemed her too old for leading lady roles. Feeling despondent, she decides to get breast implants. Instead of silicon or saline, she opts for an experimental options: Implants made from re-purposed dead tissue. At first, this goes great. She gets more roles, feels more confident, and even romances her co-star. Then she notices her new breasts seemingly have a mind of their own... And a hunger for human blood.

“The Girl with the Golden Breasts” could have been a cutting commentary on how Hollywood cruelly treats women as they age and the steps they'll go to maintain relevance. Instead, it goes for a cartoonish and ugly breed of camp that Russell relied on too much later in his career. Phoebe is rarely treated as a serious character, Rachel Veltri playing her as a brainless blonde bimbo. The character around her are equally exaggerated and broad, from the aggressively sleazy plastic surgeon to Phoebe's ridiculously shallow co-star. This obnoxious comedic streak builds towards a shockingly dumb twist ending. Russell's direction is garish and grotesque. He throws in some unnecessary neon color. He lingers on nudity and rubbery gore, especially during the needlessly extended breast implant surgery scene.

The second segment is directed by Sean S. Cunningham, whose place in horror history is secured because of “Friday the 13th,” despite him directed few other films of note. Its called “Jibaku” and follows married couple, Henry and Julia. They have recently traveled to Japan in what Henry promised would be a romantic getaway but turned into a business trip. The sexually frustrated Julia wanders off to an art museum, where she's entranced by a strange Japanese man and an even stranger painting. The painting depicts a woman being erotically drawn into Jigoku – mythological Japanese Hell – and Julia is soon experiencing this first hand. Henry must struggle to rescue his wife.

“Jibaku” – I don't know why they just didn't call it “Jigoku” – is certainly more interesting than “The Girl with the Golden Breasts.” Japan has a long history of combining horror and eroticism. Cunningham recalls both shunga wood-cuttings and hentai anime with animated interludes, depicting women being abducted by and then becoming tentacled monsters. (Aside from the obvious homage, the animation also makes up for the lack of budget.) This is not the only example of kinky sex in the segment, as Julia also has an erotic nightmare involving necrophilia. As interesting as this stuff is, there's sadly not much of a point to “Jibaku.” The characters are thin sketches. The story is nothing more than a series of encounters, happening without much explanation. The mythology is vague and half-assed. Though occasionally diverting, Cunningham's segment does not hold together as a whole.

The only segment in “Trapped Ashes” to receive much attention at all was “Stanley's Girl,” from Monte Hellman. Beginning in the 1960s, it follows Leo, a screenwriter that has had some success. He forms a friendship with a young Stanley Kubrick, right off the release of “The Killers.” The two play long games of chess while talking about film, art, music, and history. That changes when a sexually vivacious woman named Nina comes into their lives. Nina seems to disrupt Stanley's obsessive pursuit of genius. Once Kubrick goes off to Europe to film “Paths of Glory,” Leo and Nina begin to sleep together. Leo never sees his best friend again, assuming Stanley never returned because of the affair. After Kubrick's death, Leo discovers the dark truth.

“Stanley's Girl” is obviously the highlight of “Trapped Ashes.” Kubrick's last name and the titles of his films aren't explicitly mentioned but no other attempts are made to disguise his identity. By framing itself around such a famously mysterious figure, “Stanley's Girl” connects itself to a real world sense of regret. Screwing up and loosing your best friend is bad enough, but when that friend is one of the most respected directors to ever live? This sense of weighty loss informs the story. John Saxon plays present day Leo and narrates the story, Saxon bringing the right level of weight to the surprisingly sharp and blunt dialogue. “Stanley's Girl” is such an effective take on guilt and loss that its horror movie twist, added right at the end, is totally unnecessary.

The last segment is entitled “My Twin, the Worm” and it's the sole directional credit of John Gaeta, a visual effects artist most famous for his work on “The Matrix” trilogy. The segment is narrated by Natalie, the mysterious French-accented goth girl. She explains the story of her conception and childhood. How her mom ingested a tape worm from undercooked meat the same night she became pregnant. Natalie and the worm formed a symbiotic relationship in the womb, growing inside her mom at the same time. After she was born, the worm becomes Natalie's imaginary friend. And as her relationship with her mom grew worst, the worm is summoned.

While the majority of “Trapped Ashes'” segments are on the half-baked side, “My Twin, the Worm” is by far the least baked. While “Stanley's Girl” used narration effectively, the last story is overly reliant on Michèle-Barbara Pelletier's bored sounding voice-over to explain its plot. The explicit sex feels especially unnecessary and gratuitous here. The ending attempts a level of nasty body horror that just comes off as crass and desperate. Gaeta's career as a visual effect artist is evident in the short's repeated shots of a CGI fetus and tapeworm crawling around inside the womb. These moments are certainly not up to snuff with Gaeta's previous work and make the segment feel padded out and cheap.

”Trapped Ashes'” conclusion obviously recalls the Amicus anthologies that inspired it. However, it can't help but come off as somewhat mean spirited here. While Hellman's spot is good, and Dante's wraparound is decent enough, the other three stories in “Trapped Ashes” range from underwritten to outright bad. The connecting theme of the entertainment industry is half-assed and there's an unseemly hostility towards women running through all the stories. One good segment is not really enough to justify watching an entire anthology, sad to say. While a fun idea on paper, “Trapped Ashes” proves disappointing over all. [Grade: C]

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2003)

16. Looney Tunes: Back in Action

In 1996, “Space Jam” was released. A feature film adaptation of a series of Nikes commercial, it was a commercial success. In the years since, the film has become something of a touch stone for nineties kid culture, an unironically beloved source of nostalgia for folks now in their late twenties and thirties. But I'm here to tell you that “Space Jam” sucks now and sucked back then. Even as a kid, I was utterly disappointed in that film. I wasn't the only one. Hardcore Looney Tunes fans hated “Space Jam” too, for the way it attempted to make the classic cartoon character “hip and edgy” for then-modern sensibilities. After various attempts to produce a direct sequel to “Space Jam” failed, someone had the idea to invite Joe Dante – obviously a huge fan of the classic cartoons – to make his own Looney Tunes feature. “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” would attempt to re-introduce these classic characters to audiences that had maybe forgotten about them.

“Looney Tunes: Back in Action” functions under the “Roger Rabbit”-like premise that Bugs, Daffy, and their follow toon cohorts are cartoon actors that interact with flesh-and-blood people and star in movies. During production of Bugs' latest project, Daffy feuds with Kate Houghton, vice president of Warner Brothers. The duck gets fired and is escorted off the set by security guard/aspiring stunt-double DJ Drake. DJ is the son of Damian Drake, a hugely popular star of spy movies... Who is an actual spy. DJ discovers his dad has been kidnapped by the villainous ACME Corporation, who search for a magical artifact called the Blue Monkey. At the same time, Kate realizes firing Daffy was a mistake and attempts to find the duck and Bugs Bunny again. Soon, all four of them are tossed together on an adventure.

From the beginning, the main goal of “Back in Action” was to make a new Looney Tunes film that was as faithful to the old cartoons as possible. This is a goal Dante's film succeeds wildly at. There is no attempt to modernize these characters, their personalities being willfully retro. Bugs is a smart-ass that is always ahead of his challengers, everything rolling off his back. Daffy is a manic clown who has an ego about him despite the universe constantly crapping on him. The film focuses in on these two toons, their rivalry and begrudgingly friendship, and the wonderful interplay they have. This allows “Back in Action” to build a long series of quick-witted one-liners and amusingly wacky sight gags.

In order to tie together its multiple gags, “Back in Action” creates a plot that is a goofy spoof of spy movies. Damian Drake is a James Bond-like figure and we know this because he's played by former Bond, Timothy Dalton. The largely inconsequential story follows the spy movie set-up of an evil villain and a group of good guys, locked in a race to retrieve a MacGuffin first. Riffing on spy formulas lead to a number of amusing gags. Such as a high-tech spy car with a number of overbearing features. Or the way Damian Drake is introduced, attempting a video call while shrugging his way through a series of stock henchmen. The tuxedos, martinis, and sexy female co-stars – such as Heather Locklear appearing as a Vegas showgirl and in a skin-tight cat suit – all make appearances and are gently mocked.

Making Bugs and Daffy the cartoon protagonists of “Back in Action” was probably a decent idea for a number of reasons. However, Dante and his gang of writers clearly wanted to squeeze in as many classic Looney Tunes characters as possible. So the loose plot sometimes feels like a series of cameos strung together. Some of these are more natural than others. Elmer Fudd and Marvin the Martian eventually being deployed by the ACME Corporation as enforcers makes a certain degree of sense. The Tazmanian Devil and Wile E. Coyote showing up in the same roles feel kind of random. Yosemite Sam's role, as the owner of a night club, feels like a somewhat unnatural pick for that character. Bit appearances from Foghorn Leghorn, Peppe le Pew, and Sylvester and Tweety feel included more because people would've been disappointed if they hadn't shown up.

The loose story has other disadvantages too. The plot of “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” reminds me a lot of the comedy scripts my friends and I would write back in middle school. It's a series of gags connected by almost nothing, the story bending in ever-wackier directions in order to justify crazier gags. I'm fine with this up to a point – and I have no doubt that “Back in Action” is way funnier than those old scripts of mine – but it does create some problems with pacing. Dante's film is only 91 minutes long but it's still unable to maintain that manic pacing the whole time. The movie starts to tire and ware on the audience right around the time Bugs Bunny turns a carrot into a lightsaber.

Whatever flaws “Back in Action” might have, the film definitely has its share of inspired gags. Its globe-trotting story eventually takes the characters to Paris, France. At this point, Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy into the Louve. The characters end up leaping into the various paintings, hoping to escape the hunter. The result is a hilarious series of sight gags, showing the classic cartoon character interacting with the different painting styles. So Bugs and Daffy melt and twist while running through the landscapes of Dali's “The Persistence of Memory.” Faces morph into exaggerated shrieks while stepping inside Munch's “The Scream.” They are rendered in the dotty Pointillism style while traveling inside Seurat's “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” These are probably not the kind of jokes little kids would love but they cracked me up.

A similarly insular collection of gags occur in an earlier scene in the film. While wandering the desert – and making an amusingly product placement filled visit to Wal-Mart – the quartet enter Area 52. There's a goofy plot justification for this but it's mostly in the movie so Dante can insert as many references to classic sci-fi/horror as he can muster. And it's sort of beautiful. Robby the Robot is there. So is Kevin McCarthy, appearing in black-and-white and screaming about how “you're next.”  (Just to make sure the reference is understood, he's also shown carrying a pod.) Once the aliens are unleashed, Dante really goes into overdrive. Ro-Man, a Dalek, a Triffid, a delightfully squishy Metaluna Mutant, the Man from Planet X and the Fiend Without a Face all appear in quick succession. What an amazing monster movie mash-up. It's another brilliant series of gags that were unlikely to be appreciated by the kids watching this movie in 2003.

Many of the vintage Looney Tunes shorts had a fast-and-loose relationship with the fourth wall. “Duck Amuck” is only the most famous example of Daffy and the gang violating the border between the fictional world and the real world. “Back in Action” happily continues this tradition. More than once, Daffy and Bugs acknowledge the audience. They crack one-liners about the quality of the story or the jokes they are telling. At one point, a flying car stunt comes to a sudden end... Before Kate acknowledges the cartoon logic at work here, the car falling from the sky at that point. Most amusingly are the unexpected breaks of reality. Such as DJ Drake, played by Brendon Fraser, being the stunt double... For Brendon Fraser. (DJ's plot concluding with him punching out Fraser – Fraser knocking himself down – plays like some weird meta comment on the actor's own career.) Or a hilarious bit where cartoon Shaggy threatens real life Shaggy Matthew Lillard.

The animated parts of “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” were directed by Eric Goldberg, who previously animated Genie in Disney's “Aladdin.” The animation in “Back in Action” is excellent. The cartoon characters look and move just as you'd expect them too, even if they look a little more crisp and smooth than I'd prefer. What's even more impressive is how seamlessly the interactions between the live actors and the cartoons are. Never for a minute do you doubt that these characters, flesh and blood and ink and paint, are occupying the same space. Look at a fight scene between Fraser and the cartoon bodyguards of Sam's night club. That moment is certainly a lot smoother than a later moment, when Fraser fights a giant, CGI, robot watch-dog. As if you needed any further proof that cel animation is superior to computer animation.

“Space Jam” was undeniably a product of 1996. “Back in Action,” do to its blatant attempt to replicate older media, is not as immediately dated... Assuming you ignore who stars in it. This film was made during a brief period when Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman could've been considered viable box office stars. Surprisingly, both performers are perfectly on the film's wavelength. Both largely play the straight-men to their animated co-stars. Fraser is frequently very funny, a big guy that reacts with the right breed of absurd aggravation to the literal cartoons around him. Elfman, meanwhile, is similarly in-on-the-joke. Moreover, the two have good chemistry together.

The film has its share of cameos. From performers who were highly relevant at the time, like NASCAR Jeff Gordon or pro-wrestler Bill Goldberg. Others were clearly inserted at Dante's insistent, like Ron Perlman, Peter Graves as a secret agent, and his regulars Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, and Roger Corman. The other big star in the movie is Steve Martin, as the villainous Chairman of ACME Corporation. This was during that weird period when Martin was squandering all the good will he built up by starring in shit like “Bringing Down the House” and “The Pink Panther.” Martin is surprisingly awful here. Wearing an unflattering wig and glasses, he hams it up to uncomfortable levels.

Dante described the production of “Back in Action” as a rigorous one. The producers making the film did not understand the approach his fidelity to the source material, his insistence on maintaining the spirit of the Looney Tunes. He claims he had no creative control over the film at all. Knowing this, it's amazing that “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” ended up being a generally entertaining and consistently funny film. Audiences were not interested in the revival though. The film was a flop, grossing only 68 million worldwide against a 80 million dollar budget. This killed future plans for other Looney Tunes movies. It's only now that Warner Brothers is attempting another one and it's a much demanded (for some damn reason) follow-up to “Space Jam 2.” For true animation nerds, “Back in Action” is clearly the superior approach to Bugs, Daffy, and the gang. [Grade: B]

Friday, April 26, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1998) Part Two

15. Small Soldiers

Joe Dante might not have directed a true box office hit in a few years but having “Gremlins” on your resume clearly still meant something, even as late as 1998. That is pretty clearly the reason why Dante was recruited to direct “Small Soldiers,” another movie about a small town besieged by diminutive attackers. When Joe signed onto the film, he was told to deliver an edgy film for teenagers. Midway through production, the studio realized a movie about action figures had great merchandise opportunities. They demanded the project be rewritten to appeal to young kids. The result, a violent PG-13 film marketed to children, attracted some minor controversy. (Which is weird, because PG-13 movies way more intense than this had been marketed to kids, before and after.) I can't imagine it was a satisfying experience for the filmmaker.

Weapons manufacturer GloboTech Industries acquires the Heartland Toy company. CEO Gil Mars rejects a pitch for an educational series of monster toys called the Gorgonites. Instead, he approves a pitch for soldier toys called the Commando Elite and demands the toys be made as high-tech as possible. (The Gorgonites are cast as their enemies.) Toy designer Larry accidentally installs military defense computer chips in the toys. The resulting toys have self-aware artificial intelligence but are confined to their programming, meaning the Commando Elite are psychotically driven to exterminate the peaceful Gorgonites. An early shipment of the toys arrive in small town Ohio. Alan, the son of a toy shop owner, discovers how smart the Gorgonites are and how dangerous the Commandos are. Soon, the town becomes a miniature war zone.

In many ways, “Small Soldiers” is an ideal film for Joe Dante. The movie certainly continues his tendency to insert political subtext into his stories. “Small Soldiers” is ultimately a nasty satire about the way the military-industrial complex sells itself to children. The way CEO Mars dismisses the non-violent Gorgonites, in favor of the hyper-violent Commando Elite, is telling of corporate culture's anti-intellectualism. We already know the military has used pop culture for propaganda. The reason the kids in the film, like Alan or his love interest's little brother, think violent toys are cool is because that's what society has taught them. The Commandos being actual weapons sold to kid simply literalizes the idea that war, violence and death is made as attractive and clean to kids as possible, creating future recruits.

It's also pretty easy to see why “Small Soldiers” would appeal to Dante's sensibilities. Like many of his other films, “Small Soldiers” celebrates monsters. The Gorgonites are just monstrous in their appearance. They are also natural born outsiders, peaceful misfits in a world that is more accepting of the ultra-violent Commandos. And just like “Gremlins,” the small town is destroyed by these rampaging critters. The stately authorities of the small town – seen in upright symbols like the soldiers but also parents – are thoroughly mocked and torn down by the film's attitudes. The message has evolved, from destroying the suburbs out of an anarchic glee to destroying it because it's genuinely a force of monocultural homogeneity.

So “Small Soldiers” clearly has some interesting, and even subversive, ideas inside it. However, you can also see how “Small Soldiers” was retrofitted into a kiddie flick long after production started. The movie contains the kind of prosaic and generically feel-good-y moral you see in a lot of kid flicks. The Gorgonites are programmed to be cowards, in order to make the Commandos exterminating them easier. Throughout the course of the story, Archer and the Gorgonites learn to believe in themselves and stand up to the bullies... Which happen to be homicidal action figures trying to kill them. Weirdly, the movie does not connect the toys' strife with Alan going through something similar, so I guess it could've been sappier.

You can also see this insistence that “Small Soldiers” be appropriate for really young kids in its humor. Unlike the Looney Tunes-like comedy of the “Gremlins” movies, which tossed chaotic sight gags at the viewer, the gags in “Small Soldier” are a lot lamer. The Commandos toss out unimpressive one-liners, usually while getting smashed to pieces or attempting to attack someone. About the only joke that made me laugh was the expected "Patton" riff, which Jerry Goldsmith even incorporates into his score, where Elite Commando leader Chip Hazard tosses off a series of meaningless military platitudes. Otherwise the jokes – forgettable slapstick, easily understood pop culture references – are pitched at the seven and under crowd.

Ironically but unsurprisingly, “Small Soldiers” is a movie mocking how violent toys are sold to kids... That was then used to sell violent toys to kids. It's only natural, I suppose, that the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites would be turned into real mass market toys because they are pretty awesome toys. The designs are fantastic, the Commandos exaggerated the human form in an appealingly cartoon-y way. As a ten year old in 1998 who never had much interest in “G.I. Joe” and the like, I really wanted Hasbro's “Small Soldiers” figures. Nick Nitro, with his nutty grin and chiseled chin, probably has my favorite look of the lot.

The Gorgonites, meanwhile, are pretty cool little monsters. I could probably write a paragraph about each one. The leader Archer reminds me of Ron Perlman's “Beuaty and the Beast” character, in the best way. My favorite as a kid was the manic Insaniac, a purple haired goblin with a fittingly exaggerated form. (This character allows Dante to indulge in more Looney Tunes-like nuttiness.) Punch-It resembles a humanoid Megacerops in a sumo wrestler garb. Ocula is an adorable little alien cyclops. Freakenstein, a humanoid Gorgonite who is torn apart and resembles with a radio, is a really cool riff on the Frankenstein concept. Even my least favorite of the lot – Slamfist, a combination of a caveman and a hunchback with a rock for a hand for some reason – is still pretty neat.

The effects used to create this living action figures vary. Stan Winston Studios provide the practical effects. These are, naturally, excellent. The Commando Elite and Gorgonites look like real action figures – making their eventual transformation into actual toys all the more logical – yet they move in a convincing and believable fashion. Sadly, the film does not content itself with these excellent puppet effects. CGI is employed quite a bit throughout the film. These moments, of course, have not aged well. Even if living toys are easier to bring to life with antiquated CGI, they still stick out like a sore thumb against the actual actors and environments.

As much as I like the look and designs of the film's action figures, a big problem with “Small Soldiers” is that you never get an idea of these guys as characters. Of the heroic Gorgonites, Archer is the only one with a real personality. He's inquisitive and principled but shackled by his built-in extreme pacifist programming. The others, however, are reduced to broad archetypes that never connect with viewers. The Commandos, meanwhile, don't even get that much development. Chip Hazard is characterized by his obsessive desire to brutally eliminate his peaceful enemies. While some of the Elite have gimmicks – Nick Nitro has explosives, Link Static is the radio expert – most of them are just generic evil army guys. Even if they have fantastic names like Butch Meathook, Kip Killigan, and Brick Bazooka.

Perhaps in order to make up for the toys' lack of personality, an amusing gimmick was utilized when casting their voice actors. The Commandos Elite are largely voiced by actors from “The Dirty Dozen,” while the Gorgonites are largely voiced by actors from “This is Spinal Tap.” This results in Christopher Guest quoting Quasimodo while doing an amusing English accent as Slam-It. Or Harry Shearer performing a pretty good Peter Lorre impersonation as Punch-It. While the characters aren't much, it is fun to hear Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Clint Walker, and George Kennedy's voices coming out of killer toys. (Bruce Dern stands in for the late Richard Jaeckel.) Of the non-Dozen or Spinal Tap performers, Frank Langella brings a decent amount of gravitas to Archer. Tommy Lee Jones probably didn't put much thought into voicing Chip Hazard but is still excellently cast as an unhinged voice of militaristic authority.

And, ya know the voice actors prove a little more interesting than the flesh-and-blood actors. Gregory Smith plays Alan and... He's fine. Smith does not distinguish himself or the character but is a generally inoffensive performer. Kristen Dunst has some bubbly charisma as Christy, the girl next door Alan likes. Dennis Leary and Phil Hartman, reappearing from “The Second Civil War,” get some laughs as the toy company CEO and the Abernathy's asshole neighbor. Hartman's bemused reaction to everything is probably the comedic highlight of the film. (Phil died before the movie's release and it's dedicated to his memory.) David Cross is cast nicely against type as the neurotic toy design, while Jay Mohr is entirely on-type as his jockier co-designer. And, naturally, there are bit parts for Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Rance Howard, and Belinda Balaski.

It's in the last third that “Small Soldiers” starts to resemble “Gremlins” the most. Instead of Stripe multiplying via swimming pool into a horde of monsters, Chip Hazard stumbles upon a shipping truck full of Commando Elite action figures. This allows for a huge army of little attackers to lay siege to the town. There's lots of explosions, the army men fashioning a garage full of stuff into various weapons and vehicles. Flaming tennis balls smash through windows. Massive fireballs are shot. This stuff isn't without entertainment value though is certainly not as memorable as the chaos of Dante's earlier films. About the only thing that comes close is Christy's “Gwendie” dolls – Barbies – being re-purposed into zombie-like killing machines. That was an amusingly gruesome touch.

I seem to recall “Small Soldiers” being a bit of a flop as a kid. I was definitely the only kid in my school who was talking about it. Meanwhile, the weird non-controversy around the film's rating made my mom reluctant to take me to see it. (My Dad took me instead.) Yet it grossed 71 million against a 40 million dollar budget, so Universal at least didn't loose money on it. As much as I enjoyed the murderous toys and the carnage they reaped as a kid, even back then I was slightly dissatisfied with “Small Soldiers.” The film is pulled between being a sharper, nastier film mocking the military industrial complex and a simple kids flick with lots of safe mayhem. There's a lot of things to like about it but it never gels as a whole. [Grade: B-]

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1998) Part One

14. The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy

Joe Dante was never a reliable box office performer. While he occasionally directed a major hit like “Gremlins,” most of his movies gained cult followings but not massive audiences. Probably because of this, Dante would find a lot of work in television in the nineties and beyond. By 1998, his last two films had been made-for-TV movies. Going forward, Dante would lend his talent to episodes of episodic television series like “Picture Windows,” “Night Visions,” “CSI: New York,” the new “MacGuyver” and “Hawaii Five-0.” It's around this time that Dante would direct an unsuccessful pilot for a science fiction series. Intended to launch an on-going TV show called “The Osiris Chronicles,” the pilot would instead be aired as a stand-alone TV movie called “The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy”

The plot of “The Warlord” is ridiculously convoluted but I'll do my best to summarize it quickly. Following a massive intergalactic war, the humans and aliens spread across the universe are left with few resources. Justin Thorpe is a thief and rogue. Following the disappearance of his little sister, he teams up with General Sorenson, a veteran of the war and a former member of the Galactic Republic. Gathering on his ship, the Osiris, Thorpe incurs the wrath of Warlord Heenoc Xian. The crew goes on the run, gathering up more members, and eventually running into a race of self-mutilating alien perfectionists known as the Engineers.

“The Warlord” would air on UPN in January of 1998. At the same time, UPN was also the television home of the “Star Trek” franchise. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager” were both airing at the time this film premiered. So it's not surprising that “The Osiris Chronicles” would emulate “Trek.” In fact, “The Warlord” is among the most blatant attempts to replicate the “Star Trek” formula I've ever seen. It's got a band of heroes, working together despite their disparate personalities, traveling the universe on a specifically branded spaceship. They even come in conflict with an antagonistic alien race that captures people and rip away their personalities. The debt “Battle for the Galaxy” has to nineties “Trek” is evident any time the ship is struck by enemy fire, when the camera jerks around and people fling themselves across the set.

“The Warlord” isn't just one of the most boldface rip-offs of “Star Trek” I've seen. It's also among the worst. The plot is the kind of impenetrable sci-fi gobbledygook that gave the genre a bad name. Characters immediately toss off names of planets, ships, and empires. There are references to a deeper lore, to vague events that happened years before the pilot's story actually happened. Never once is there any attempt to make sure the audience actually understands any of this bullshit. The movie dives right into some deep nerd bullshit and never looks back. How ass-backwards “The Warlord's” approach is can be seen in how its structured. The film is narrated, in flashback, by a character that doesn't actually affect the plot for about a half-hour.

Nowadays, genre television shows have special effects budgets comparable to major motion pictures. Things were much more humble in the nineties. The practical effects for “The Warlord” are totally servicable. The set designs are decent, one of the few aspects of the film that really distinguish itself from “Star Trek” and similar shows. The practical creature effects are also quite good, the Engineers having a decently off-putting look for villainous aliens. The show's other effects, however, are less stellar. Unsurprisingly, CGI made for a TV movie from 1998 is not convincing. The shots of the ships look light-weight, plastic-like, and cartoony. Worst yet, the designs for the ships aren't even cool. The Osiris looks like a goofy, metal goldfish.

If “The Osiris Chronicles” was ever going to work as an ensemble TV show, its cast obviously needs to be memorable and interesting. Sorry to say this isn't true either. John Corbett stars as Thorpe, the pilot's attempt at a Captain Kirk/Han Solo-like rogue-ish hero. Corbett is a decent lead – look up the short-lived “Lucky” for proof of that – but he seems baffled and disinterested in the material here. Rod Taylor, in a part intended for Christopher Lee, attacks his lines with gusto even if he clearly has no idea what any of it means. John Pyper-Ferguson, as the titular Warlord, gives a surprisingly awful performance, sneering all his dialogue through a weirdly put-on accent.

And there's a ton of other characters in this thing. Being a pilot, “The Warlord” sets up dozens of potential plot points. There are betrayals and strained alliances, the heroes teaming up with the Warlord and Thorpe wondering if he can trust Sorenson. There's familial connections that need to be resolved, Sorenson having a daughter and Thorpe pursuing his missing little sister. The Engineers are clearly set up to be reoccurring opponents for the heroes going forward. The only attempt to make this stand alone at all is a little narration at the end, an “And the adventure continues” monologue from the narrator. So many excess storylines are piled on us that it becomes completely impossible for the viewer to care about any of it.

It's fairly obvious that Joe Dante was simply operating as a hired gun on this one. Very little of his style or themes are evident in this convoluted sci-fi story. About the only indication Dante directed this are bit parts from Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. Once or twice, something happens on screen that makes you wonder if the director had a hand in crafting it. The bizarre and morbid secrets of the Engineers is a big, fleshy bit of practical creature effects that is kind of cool. Thorpe's adolescent sidekick reminds me a little bit of “Explorers” and Dante's other kid flicks. Yet aside from these elements, there's very little of interest here at all.

“The Warlord,” obviously, would not launch a series. The rest of “The Osiris Chronicles” would remain untold. Even sci-fi fans that turned hyper-nerdy shit like “Babylon 5” and “Earth: Final Conflict” into relative successes couldn't get into this film's particular brand of nonsense. Subsequently, the pilot has sunk into obscurity. It's easily Joe Dante's most obscure and hard-to-find movie, that buried status being totally justified. Apparently, the TV show “Andromeda” – another sci-fi program too nerdy even for a huge fucking dork like me – bares something of a resemblance to this movie. So maybe “The Warlord,” or “The Osiris Chronicles” or whatever you want to call it, failed not because it sucked but because it starred a character actor instead of a former Hercules. Sure, let's go with that. [Grade: D]

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1997)

13. The Second Civil War

On the surface, most of Joe Dante's films do not seem especially political. Sure, you can read into the way the gremlins tear down the suburban settings or the towering symbol of big business. Or the darkness hiding under a similarly ideal community in “The 'Burbs.” I mean, that's exactly what I've done throughout this Director Report Card. Yet, for the most part, the chaotic comedy and monster kid homages in Dante's films do not provide probing insight into America's society or politics. He seems like a film nerd making movies for other film nerds, more often than not.

However, Dante has occasionally touched upon explicitly political messages in his work. Weirdly, this side of the director tends to come through more in his television work. Look at his two “Masters of Horror” episodes. “Homecoming” is an explicit critique of the Bush II administration while “The Screwfly Solution” directly takes on American gender politics. An earlier example is “The Second Civil War.” A television film made for HBO, it aired in 1997 without drawing much attention. (Though it did win a Primetime Emmy and drag a few obscure nominations here and there.) In 2019 though, this critique of a divided America comes off as way more relevant than ever anticipated.

Set at an undetermined point in the then-future, “The Second Civil War” takes place in an America on the brink of upheaval. A charity has announced that they are planning on transporting a group of Pakistani refugees – the result of a nuclear war along the Indian border – to their base in Idaho. In response, the xenophobic governor of the state, Jim Farley, is planning on closing the state's borders. This creates a constitutional crisis. The President of the United States issued an ultimatum: Either desist with the closed border in 63 hours or national troops will be sent in. A racially divided United States proves more supportive of Farley, who has his own personal problems, than anticipated. Soon, America is on the verge of civil war, as militias and bodies within the U.S. military threaten to stand against American troops on the Idaho border.

In 1997, “The Second Civil War” was an exaggeration of fringe beliefs and concepts boiling inside American culture. In 2019, it's basically a documentary. The film depicts an America more xenophobic than ever before, where people on the right are freaking out about refugees from the Middle East. In response to this, borders are closed. Gun-totting rednecks and lunatics, fancying themselves patriots and true Americans, are ready to fight back against these immigrants and their own countrymen. Meanwhile, politicians say things that are totally opposed to their own beliefs and actions just to win points with their base. This obviously mirrors our modern world in eerie ways. Just do a Google search for the film's title and see how many hits you get from websites actually speculating about the possibility of a real second civil war. Though not even a satire as eerily accurate as “The Second Civil War” would've guessed that the President would be a failed casino owner/former game show host.

“The Second Civil War” might've been weirdly forward-thinking in many ways. However, it was way off in some ways. In the America of “The Second Civil War,” different parts of the country are dominated by non-white races. California is populated almost exclusively by non-English speaking Latinos. A sudden influx of Asian immigrants to Rhode Island has made the union's smallest state a prominently Chinese neighborhood. The Hindu population has exploded in Alabama. Former L.A. gang members are now senators. This is one prediction that clearly didn't come to pass. Moreover, it comes off as pretty clumsy. Depending on the light you read it in, the idea of different races self-segregating and dominating entire states plays into the worst fears of the radical right.

But let's not get hung up on the various ways “The Second Civil War” predict our current predicament or was way off the mark. This is a comedy, a satire. The film's biggest laughs tend to come from how the characters' incredibly petty desires contrast against their political decisions. Farley's isolationist politics has pushed America to the brink of war. This isn't what's really on his mind. Instead, he's utterly obsessed with Christina, a Latina news reporter he previously had an affair with. She has left him, partially do to his racist rhetoric, and he just can't get over it. Everything he does is directed by his libido and broken heart. The President, meanwhile, is unwilling to make any decisions. Instead, his actions are largely manipulated by lobbyiest who speak to him with meaninglessly broad historical references. Meanwhile, he decides to move his deadline ahead a few hours so as not to delay a soap opera broadcast. The woman running the immigration charity is constantly sore that other charities get more attention. This future where big decisions that affect all of society are influenced by the the pettiest of bullshit is also a scarily accurate reflection of our own time. And, maybe, it's always been true.

If the film's biggest laughs come from the contrast between public figure's decisions and their personal failings, its second biggest laughs come from its treatment of the media. In this future, the media is essentially torn between people who want to report the truth and businessmen who only care about ratings. (The rise of fake news and conspiracy theorists posing as journalists is another thing the filmmakers couldn't predict.) Producers argue about which massacres they should mention, so as not to alienate any profitable demographics. Others discuss the most commercial ways to sell the American public on the immigrant orphans. One of the film's funniest moments occurs when a co-anchor cracks up during a live broadcast, no longer being able to contain her emotions.

As funny as “The Second Civil War” can be, the film also lurches awkwardly towards other moods at times. There are pretty serious moments here. The angered Mexican population of Texas decide to burn the Alamo down. In retaliation, white nationalist blow up the Statue of Liberty, objecting to the message on her stone slate. These are pretty grave moments that exist alongside moments of wackier comedy. So is a scene of when the fighting breaks out on the Idaho border, where people are being gunned down and then Dick Miller cracks a one-liner. The overall flippant tone ends up jiving body with more serious attempts at political points, like a tender conversation with James Earl Jones' reporter and that gang-member-turned-senator.

The biggest problem “The Second Civil War” has is how damn shaggy it is. You have to wonder if writer Martyn Burke always intended this as a feature film. This is a ninety-three minute long television movie. It contains enough plot points and characters for an entire season of television. There's over a dozen named characters, each with their own histories, which we only get a peek at here. So much happens over the course of the script, so many events transpiring as the Idaho conflict veers towards actual bloodshed, that the viewer can get a little lost. You can easily see this being stretched out a little more, many of these story turns and plot twists being given more time to breath.

The Emmy “The Second Civil War” won was for Beau Bridges as Farley. Beau is, in fact, hilarious. When the cameras on him, he passionately spits speeches about putting America first. (He even delivers a line about restoring America to its former glory, that plays like a less catchy “Make America Great Again.”) In private, he's a neurotic mess that refuses to let go of a one night stand that probably hates him. Beau plays these two sides nicely, often getting laughs from his pathetic ramblings. Phil Hartman, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as the child-like President who is preoccupied with recreating the great presidents before him. An authority figure that is hopelessly over-his-head but unwilling to relent his power is an ideal part for the hilarious stylings of the late, great Hartman.

The stacked supporting cast features quite a few names. James Earl Jones, likely cast do to his iconic turn as the announcer of CNN, appears as the most principled of the network's journalists. Few performers project gravitas the way Jones does and he certainly roots the film's more serious themes, even if they don't entirely work. James Coburn has a very funny role as the main lobbyist pulling the President's strings. Coburn brings a musical quality to his dialogue, often making certain phrases hilarious just from the way he says them. Dan Hedaya is also funny as the put upon head of the news network, always pushing for bigger ratings. Elizabeth Pena gets the most out of scenes that have her reacting to Bridge's ridiculousness.

There's few corners of the film that aren't filled with some recognizable face or another. Ron Perlman shows up as one of the more outspoken producers in the news network, whose left-wing politics frequently see him butting heads with his more conservative co-workers. Dennis Leary shows up as a field reporter, doing his typical Leary schtick – swearing a lot and acting outraged – to varying degrees of success. Dante brings along plenty of his house players too. There's Robert Picardo as the network's technology expert. Here's Dick Miller as the cameraman dropped into the soon-to-be war zone. How about Rance Howard as one of the more clueless would-be minute men? Or Roger Corman as the calculating money man on the network? Kevin McCarthy and Belinda Balaski are somewhere in there too.

I don't think “The Second Civil War” totally works. Time has rendered its satire fact, making it more depressing to watch now than back in 1997. The film's script is overstuffed and not all of its ideas land. Yet it's such an ambitious movie, especially for a television production. (The film's scope was rewarded in some overseas markets, where it played theatrically.) This is a film with some really big ideas, making biting and perceptive points about American life. Obviously, it was really ahead of the curve on a lot of these issues as well. Some have hailed it as Dante's overlooked masterpiece, which is a statement I'm tempted to agree with even if I don't like the movie anywhere near that much. [Grade: B]