Archive for January, 2012

If you take a close look at the poster for 1978’s Mardi Gras Massacre reproduced above, you’ll notice something — the vital stats (so to speak) of the female victim pictured bound and helpless above, one “Nancy Dancer” (and just for the record, that is the actual — ahem! — “professional” name used by one of the actresses who portrays a prostitute in this film),  feature her (exaggerated, I can assure you, having seen Ms. Dancer in this film) measurements actually listed above her birthdate and the date of  her death! And that, my friends,  probably tells you all you need to know about the movie’s priorities right there.

To simply call Mardi Gras Massacre misogynistic is an understatement of the highest order. This is a movie that exists for basically no other reason than to show women strip completely naked, get oiled up by some lecherous creep, and then have their limbs amputated, their stomachs sliced open, their hearts removed — you get the picture here, I’m sure. Given that the film was written and directed by Jack Weis, the same guy responsible for the ultra-sleazy race-and-slavery exploitation picture Quadroon, I definitely wasn’t expecting anything even remotely approaching tasteful here, but even I was rather taken aback by the unrelentingly mean-spirited tone of this one.

To set the stage, our “plot,” such as it is, here revolves around some apparently rich guy (he’s only referred to in the credits as “John,” which strikes me as more a reference to his nocturnal activities than to his name — and special kudos here to the guy who plays him, one William Metzo, for actively hamming this part up to the hilt and delivering a memorably OTT-in-the-sleaze-department performance) who hangs out at a bar in the French Quarter looking to pick up the “most evil” (his exact words) working girls in the joynt, then takes them back to his apartment/ritual chamber where he puts on a mask, ties them up on some kind of altar-thing, slathers oil on their tits, and then agonizingly-yet-strangely-nochalantly (Metzo’s acting is more memorable when he’s on the hunt than when he’s moving in for the kill) disembowels them as a sacrifice to the Aztec wind gods or something (for those of you keeping track, the kill scenes come complete with cow hearts, loads of red Karo syrup, thoroughly unconvincing plastic (or rubber, or something) mannequin body doubles, and even less convincing rushing-wind sound effects. Oh, and Aztec ritual sacrifice? It’s fucking New Orleans, people — wouldn’t voodoo make a little bit more sense?). In between we’ve got some plodding and dull police procedural shit, some actual Mardi Gras footage, etc., but this is basically just a flick that exists to show unfortunate females getting naked and getting slaughtered, Weis and company don’t even seem to be actively trying when it comes to the other stuff and it looks and feels like the half-hearted filler material it so obviously is.

In short, the whole thing shouldn’t work. There’s no “story” to speak of, more just a series of set-ups and pointless subplots, the inherent humor of, say, a Herschell Gordon Lewis, who produced stuff every bit as gory and cheap and degrading-to-the-female-half-of-the-species as this but with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek the whole time, is nowhere to be found, the concept of “characterization” is absolutely alien to the proceedings, most of the women who strip for the camera-and-the-killer are less than memorable in the looks department (one was apparently a former Playboy playmate who had one of the world’s first boob jobs and they were quite obviously hardening and past their expiration date (or whatever) by this point) and when nobody’s getting killed the whole thing gets pretty repetitious and boring, apart from the always-amusingly-hokey dialogue.

And yet — maybe it’s the low-grade, grainy-ass film stock used here, or Metzo’s playing up the evil of his “John” to an obviously unintentionally dripping-with-sleaze degree, or maybe it’s the absolute and unflinching nastiness of the murders themselves and the film’s overall uber-anti-women tone, but the whole thing, probably more by accident or the slapdash, get-it-in-the-can necessities of ultra-low-budget filmmaking than by design, somehow kinda works. You feel like you need to take a shower to remove the stain of the entire affair afterwards, and while that isn’t necessarily the sign of anything that might be called a good film, it’s the sure hallmark of a memorable one. You might not be glad that you saw Mardi Gras Massacre, but it’ll stick with you — hell, it even feels like it’s sticking to you —afterwards.

Mardi Gras Massacre has recently been released on DVD from Code Red as part of their “Maria’s B-Movie Mayhem” series hosted by former WWE “diva” (there’s a word that sure doesn’t mean what it used to) Maria Kanellis. It’s presented full-frame from a highly flawed, showing-its-age master (as it should be), the sound is strictly (for the most part serviceable) mono, and extras include the requisite Kanellis framing sequences, a short-but-interesting conversation with  William Metzo (from which, I noticed, the most memorable anecdotes are cribbed for Kanellis’ introduction), a handful of trailers for some other Code Red releases, and the music video for Kanellis’ rather lackluster” power-pop” single “Fantasy” that accompanies all of these things.

Like a lot of what we take a look at here at TFG, this most definitely isn’t a movie suitable for all tastes, maturity levels, mental states, social sensibilities (strong feminists would do especially well to avoid this one unless they’re actively seeking to have their blood pressure raised for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom), or political persuasions — it knows it’s there to do an admittedly unpleasant job and it gets in, does it, and then gets the hell back out. Call it unflinching misogyny-by-the-numbers. It’s brutish, nasty, sleazy, unapologetic, and cheap.

You know, like some of the best nights of your life. Maybe even like life itself.

Here’s the thing — I want to like director Christopher Lewis’ 1985 shot-on-video slasher Blood Cult so much more than I actually do. That’s largely due to its place in movie — or, more specifically, home video — history. Ya see, Blood Cult is the first ever SOV direct-to-home-video flick, and anyone who’s followed this blog for any any period of time knows that my love for this genre knows no bounds. For reasons either too complex, or entirely too simple, to figure out, dime-store backyard horrors have always resonated with this armchair critic and always will, and this is where it all began.

Perhaps a bit of history is in order here — with the major Hollywood studios figuring out in the mid-80s that releasing their own back catalogues on VHS was going to be both cheaper and more profitable than licensing them out to the numerous video labels that were popping up all over the place, outfits like Tulsa, Oklahoma-based United Home Video suddenly realized they had to either adapt or die. Most of their contemporaries did, indeed, peter out in relatively short order, but United survived (and carries on to this day under the VCI Entertainment label) by hitting on the rather ingenious idea of just making their own fucking movies. Simple, right? And they also figured (wisely, as it turns out) that by slapping some fancily lurid cover art on their straight-to-VHS wares, that they could hoodwink potential renters out there into thinking they were taking home the next great slasher flick (note the “In the tradition of Halloween” tag-line on the box art courtesy of the fine folks at instead of some essentially homemade quickie.

In theory that all sounds good, and frankly in practice a lot of these subsequent efforts (think Video Violence and its sequel, Video Violence 2, Woodchipper Massacre, Captives, Killing Spree (okay, that was shot on film, but it’s still roughly of a piece with the other flicks we’re talking about here) and The Basement (alright, that was film, too — sue me), to name just a small handful) proved to be good, solid, admittedly cheesy fun. But the first steps out of the gate for the SOV-DTV genre were pretty tepid indeed.

That’s because Blood Cult, sadly, is pretty much nothing more than a crushing bore. I’m more or less genetically hardwired to love any shot-on-a-camcorder slasher made in and around Tulsa for $27,000 featuring less-than-basement-level production values, but damn if I didn’t find this flick to be one tough slog. I’m sorry, but the story of grizzled police detective (or maybe he’s a sheriff, it’s never all that clear) Ron Wilbois (Charles Ellis) attempting to solve a string of bloody sorority-house murders on a local college campus with the help of his intrepid librarian daughter, Tina (Juli Andelman) just isn’t nearly as intriguing as its admittedly by-the-numbers-but-that’s kinda-why-we-love-these-things premise would indicate.

The only clue left at the murder scenes is a medallion emblazoned with a dog’s head, and it’s Tina’s five-minute-long occult research that clues her old man into the fact that this is the symbol of an ancient satanic cult that’s into collecting body parts for (obviously) nefarious purposes. Throw in the requisite half-assed “acting,” poor gore effects, minimal editing resulting is some painfully lengthy takes, etc. that would all become de riguer in the SOV world and we would definitely seem to have a winner on our hands here. Yet as I’ve mentioned more than once already, Blood Cult never really manages to find its groove, frankly because it doesn’t even seem to be trying to. It’s almost as if Lewis and company were more concerned with just getting the damn thing made and out there than actually producing something remotely worth watching. Once they had your three or four dollar rental fee in their pockets, you were on your own, sucker — their job was done.

If you must, Blood Cult is available on DVD from VCI (naturally) — the full-frame picture has been remastered and looks reasonably good, the sound is mono but decent enough, and as you might guess being that they own the damn thing extras are plentiful, including cast and crew interviews, a trailer, a promo reel-even-though-it’s-not-on-a-reel-per-se, and a reasonably interesting feature-length director’s commentary. All in all a more than adequate package for a less than adequate movie.

United would go on to crank out a few more of these, most notably The Ripper and the  direct Blood Cult sequel Revenge, neither of which are exactly classics in the SOV world themselves, but they did get a little better, or at least more interested in what they were doing, as they went along. Unfortunately their first (hell, anyone’s first) foray into the field is too lackluster to be interesting without being actively bad enough to be fascinating. It just sort of happens.

If you’re wise, you’ll ignore its place in both horror and home video history and let it happen to someone else.

A word of warning : if you’re not into over-analysis of Diablo Cody’s screenplays, then proceed no further. It’s just something we Minneapolis movie geeks do.

Okay, still here? Then let’s begin —

I’d been avoiding seeing Young Adult (as has, apparently, the rest of the world, given its dismal box-office performance) simply because I was so sure I’d hate it. Juno was offensive on every level, with its inherent message that teen pregnancy is a situation that can be overcome if you’re just hip enough (it’s also worth noting that right-wing commentators of the Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter variety praised it for being a “pro-life” film, and they were right), and Jennifer’s Body was unmitigated and thoroughly confused garbage from start to finish (that also continued the trend of Cody’s work promoting conservative social “values” by taking the tried-and-true (and inherently anti-sex and anti-women, not that we don’t usually love it around here in spite of ourselves) “slasher” formula of having the slutty girls get killed early while saving the prudish virgin to be the “final girl” who ultimately defeats the killer and upping it to the next level by having the sexually promiscuous title character get fucking possessed by the devil during intercourse and having the chaste “final girl” save the whole world from no less than Lucifer himself/herself), so what possible hope could there be for a flick that reunited Ms. Cody with Juno director Jason Reitman (who again in this case seems to be earning his reputation as a “hot” cinematic helmsman more for his ability to coax some admittedly very nice performances out of his cast rather than due to anything he might bring to the table stylistically speaking) to tell the story of a younger-end-of-middle-aged, semi-successful, teen-romance-series fiction writer (Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary character, the titular “young adult” in question) who goes back to her po-dunk hometown of Mercury, Minnesota (there’s no such place, just in case you were wondering) after her divorce in order to (she hopes) rekindle things with her old high school flame (Patrick Wilson), who’s now happily married and celebrating the birth of his first child? Ultimately, though, my curiosity got the better of me, and (of course) I ended up seeing it at a bargain matinee. I’m predictable like that.

Anyway, since I brought up right-wing social mores in Cody’s work (albeit in parenthesis, which I seem to be doing quite a lot today — including right now), let’s just acknowledge the white elephant in the living room and admit that this unfortunate trend continues in Young Adult, since the movie states in no uncertain terms that the lives of middle-aged, single, childless women are inherently empty and miserable (Mavis even has the nerve to be career-focused, as well, even if her book series is nearing cancellation). But in this case I’m giving Cody something of a pass because it’s blatantly obvious that these “character quirks” in Mavis are being employed not in order to advance any particular sociopolitical agenda (even though they do just that), but rather as some sort of defense mechanism/safety barrier/whatever so that audiences won’t draw too many parallels between the title character and the screenwriter herself, given that our gal Diablo has recently married and had a baby.

Apart from those superficial (of a sort, at any rate) differences, though, the fact is that Mavis is obviously a stand-in for Cody, and this results in Young Adult‘s greatest near-triumphs and, ultimately, its downfall. You see, it’s no secret that our intrepid “young adult” fiction writer is unhappy with her life and finds the “promised land” of big-city living in Minneapolis to be a lot less than it’s cracked up to be (substitute screenwriting for teen fiction and Hollywood for Minneapolis and you’ve got pure autobiography here — do I even need to point this out? Didn’t think so) and thinks that returning to her roots will somehow provide the answer to the gaping hole of emptiness that her life has become. When she gets there, though, she ends up discovering that where she came from is no great shakes, either, and that the only way forward in life is to — well, move forward, because the past just ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Sounds like a surprisingly mature outlook from somebody whose previous work was always more than a little bit too cool for school, doesn’t it? Throw in some terrific performances from Patton Oswalt as the picked-on-in-high-school kid who never left town and forms a friendship with Mavis due to their mutual loneliness and love of booze, Patrick Wilson as the sympathetic former-flame-and-new-dad who can’t quite hide the fact that he ultimately feels sorry for his old girlfriend, and Collette Wolfe as the small-town-girl-with-a-small-town-mind-but-still-dreams-kinda-big-anyway sister of Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf character, and you would seem to have the makings of a pretty decent little flick with a huge helping of good, old-fashioned existential doubt at its core. The French would be proud.

Things really hit a solid and truthful note when Mavis, realizing the folly of her quest to get back with her old beau, turns up at Matt’s house and the two share a love scene that leaves them both tremendously vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. It’s understated, yet louder than bombs (as The Smiths might say), and a couple of the best minutes of screen time in any movie in recent years. If the whole thing had ended there, or with Mavis silently driving off in the morning, I’d be praising Young Adult to high heaven.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Instead, what we get is a hateful harangue against her hometown and the people in it delivered by Matt’s sister the next morning, where she insists that Mavis is still way cooler than anyone back here in Mercury and that everybody who lives in this one-horse shithole is fat, ugly, and deserves to die. Mavis takes it all in, quietly agrees, and then cruelly leaves the poor girl behind when she asks to come to Minneapolis with her (“You’re good here,” she states.) She drives off in her damaged car, finishes her book at a fast-food joynt, and it’s off into a future that, while admittedly uncertain, is still better than where she came from.

And that, my friends, is Cody finishing the film not on an honest, human, note of vulnerability, but with a huge middle finger to her critics. She’s honest enough to acknowledge that what she’s achieved maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that maybe her star has faded more than just a bit pretty quickly, but she’s still better than us, and certainly better than where she came from, and she’s still made it as far as she has and that’s a whole lot farther than anyone she grew up with.

Maybe she’s perfectly entitled to feel this bitter and resentful towards her past and the people that used to know her given some of the extremely over-the-top and unnecessarily personal attacks she’s received online and  in the print media from people who supposedly either knew her or at least (and more frequently) knew of her back in the day, but to see her come so frustratingly close to telling a really good story (the characters in this one even have their own distinct, individual personalities and don’t all speak with the same voice!) that acknowledges some of the things she’s been through and states the more-or-less universal truth that both where we’ve been and where we are have their problems, while the future remains a mystery, only to tell us that all that doubt was pointless and that at the end of the day she’s still way cooler and more successful than we’ll ever be is both insulting and a gutless cop-out.

Cody’s next project is apparently going to be her directorial debut, some story about a woman who’s raised in a religious home, loses her faith when she becomes a stripper or a hooker or something, and then finds it again through some series of trials and travails or whatever. So  apparently the promulgation of right-wing social mores under a flimsy veneer of “hipness” will continue.  To say I’m less than optimistic about how this sounds would be an understatement, and that’s a real shame because until the last few minutes of this film, I was ready to say that Diablo Cody had well and truly won me over and that I was ready to put my serious (and numerous) reservations about her work aside and just trust her to take us along with her on the ride to wherever this little journey of hers is headed. Now? Not so much.

At the end of the day, this film shows enough promise, conservative cultural subtext aside, for me to believe that Diablo Cody probably does have a really great story to tell buried inside of her somewhere. This could have been it — but her insistence on still being seen as the coolest girl in school (or in Hollywood, as the case may be) shows that this Young Adult still has a lot of growing up to do herself.

Writer-director Dee Rees is the so-called “creative force” behind the new Sundance-approved indie semi-sensation Pariah, a largely autobiographical portrait (so we’re told) of her coming-out experience as a black lesbian teenager in Brooklyn. Fair enough. Making any non-studio film is tough, writing about your own life is even tougher, and this is certainly a competently-executed film (in many respects) which she can take a lot of pride in. And yet —

Sorry to step in it here, folks, and there will be those who argue that I’m inherently unqualified to offer this opinion being neither black nor homosexual (for that matter I’m not female either — or even a New Yorker, much less a Brooklynite), but damnit, I know when I’m being manipulated.

First off let’s acknowledge that what we’ve got here isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff — I don’t mean to minimize Rees’ life experiences in any way, shape ,or form, but while the fact that coming out of the closet is difficult, and even more difficult in the African-American community for a variety of reasons, is most definitely a sad reality, it’s not like this is some well-kept secret. Every garden-variety white liberal like myself knows it. I’m sure if I’d been through a fraction of what Rees, and her stand-in-for-herself-as-a-17-year-old protagonist, Alike (pronounced a-LEE-kay) had been through, I’d find more to relate to on a personal level with this story. But I’d still be honest enough to know that I was, on some level, being hoodwinked just a bit here — and frankly, if Rees was more confident in the inherent strength of her material, she’d realize there’s no need for it, as I’m sure a more honest recollection of her struggles would ultimately make for a more powerful and affecting film than what we’ve ultimately got with Pariah.

I have to give kudos to the actors — as Alike, Adepero Oduye is beyond sensational. She breathes life into a character that has to read on paper like little more than a cipher for the young, gay, and black experience (oh, and she’s a poet, too — of course). Her powerfully understated, deeply resonant performance gives the film much more than depth, it gives it heart and soul. As her religious mother struggling to cover the holes in her own marriage with Christian near-fundamentalism, Kim Wayans is also superb, and TV vet Charles Parnell shines as her willfully ignorant father in probably the movie’s most believably-scripted part — you know he knows what’s going on with his daughter and that his wife is terrified of facing reality, but he’d rather sweep it all under the rug and worry about it another day.

That day of reckoning can’t be put off forever, though, and as Alike becomes more confident in expressing who she is, and the drama in her life (she’s in love with a girl who’s not really all that gay, while her best friend, who’s very much “out,” is in love with her even though she knows Alike doesn’t share her romantic feelings — essentially a garden-variety “love triangle” transposed from a million-plus Lifetime network movies-of-the-week into a different cultural context) begins to spill over into the home, the truth can’t be ignored any longer.

And yet, despite all the confident, assured, downright remarkable performances at the center of this film, Rees feels the need to cover up the inherently syrupy, unnecessarily convoluted, quasi-“inspirational”-movie shortcomings in her script with a bogus veneer of thoroughly-played-out shaky-cam indie “credibility” that’s both grating and completely unnecessary, given that the actors are more than up the challenge of making this at least partially-hackneyed script seem a lot more real than it is.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing Pariah — it’s worth the price of admission based on the strength of the acting alone. But there’s a bigger tragedy unfolding off-screen than anything transpiring on-screen, and that is that Rees doesn’t have enough confidence in her story, her actors, or the intelligence of the audience to avoid schmaltzing it up, and then trying to cover up that schmaltz with bog-standard stylistic trappings that are well past their sell-by date. As such, it limits is appeal, for the most part, to those who may be able to overlook these weaknesses and see parts of heir own lives reflected in what’s happening on the screen.The end result is a film that ends up having more limited appeal than it probably deserves to, because the themes of alienation, family secrets, and struggling to express one’s individuality against daunting odds are more universal than Rees seems to realize and/or acknowledge —unfortunately, her insistence on hustling us both in terms of form and content ends up partially shoving her movie into the same type of closet her lead character, and she herself, struggled to come out of.

There’s a great film aching to break free from the self-imposed ghetto the obviously talented Dee Rees has shoehorned Pariah into. It’s sort of tragic that she didn’t have enough faith in herself to make it, as her cast would  have been more than up to the challenge.

It seems that a  couple of the most respected actresses of the late-20th/early-21st centuries are choosing roles they want to serve as the capstones on their already-remarkable careers, with Glenn Close going the androgynous route in the forthcoming Albert Nobbs and Meryl Streep taking on the daunting task of actually trying to humanize Margaret Thatcher is director Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic The Iron Lady. And while neither of these parts can exactly be called casting against type, and in fact both might be considered to be downright safe choices, perhaps even the stereotypical “roles they were born to play” (although that might seem strange to say when we consider that in Nobbs Close will be playing a woman living as a man), the fact is that we know we’ll be getting our money’s worth out of both of these pictures at least as far as the acting is concerned, which is more than you can say for a great number of films being churned out by either the Hollywood mill or the nominally “independent” scene these days.

In short, then, I wasn’t expecting The Iron Lady  to be much beyond a tour-de-force showcasing of Streep’s not-inconsiderable talents, and in truth it’s not, but that’s okay because it does keep you pretty firmly glued to your seat for its nearly-two hour run time. Sure, the always-reliably-wonderful Jim Broadbent turns in a  quietly magnificent performance as Thatcher’s husband Dennis (mostly portrayed as a hallucinatory figure haunting his wife’s dotage long after his death), but this is Streep’s show all the way in the same way that 1980s Britain was Maggie’s.

One thing that all the publicity/hype surrounding this film is being pretty coy about, though, if not downright dishonest, is this insistence that Lloyd and company are offering us some sort of “neutral” or “non-judgmental,” at the very least, look at Thatcher’s life and career. In short, that’s total BS. This is a film with a very strong editorial viewpoint, one eerily similar to Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and that is — underneath all that bombast, these right-wing politicos are just human being like you and me. Which is, of course, true — they’re products of their upbringing (in Thatcher’s case the daughter of a conservative grocery-store owner who spent her formative late-teen years surviving Hitler’s vicious aerial blitz on Great Britain) just like we are, but the point at which their consciences make the crucial break that allows them to view their fellow human beings as nothing more than grist for their ideological mills isn’t adequately explored in either Stone’s film or The Iron Lady, and thus the audience is left with nothing much to hang onto as far as the script is concerned and is left, instead, with the disquieting feeling that, well, hey, maybe these people just did the best they could (and the lie is further put to this “neutral approach” sales pitch by some of Streep’s television interviews where she has a habit of pointing out that Mrs. Thatcher was pro-choice and didn’t try to shut down the NHS — oh, well, guess it’s all okay, then).

From start to finish, Britain’s first (and to date only) female Prime Minister is portrayed in nothing but the most sympathetic terms, as it’s emphasis on her declining mental and physical state today (and to be honest these “framing” sequences” are where Streep shines most brightly — her mannerisms and body language are absolutely impeccable and her portrayal of a proud, dignified woman who knows she’s losing her marble but is powerless to stop it is palpably raw and immediate) functions as more or less an immediate “cheat” designed to engender heartfelt sympathy for Thatcher from the audience. To be sure it’s a “cheat” that works thanks to Streep’s absolute inhabiting of the role, but it’s blatantly manipulative nonetheless.

The bulk of the story is mainly told through flashbacks (with Alexandra Roach standing is as a young Maggie Roberts-cum-Thatcher until she gets elected to parliament in 1959), and this gives Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan the ability to conveniently gloss over some of the more controversial aspects of Thatcher’s tenure such as the miner’s strike and Maggie standing stoically by while 10 Irish hunger strikers literally starved themselves to death (both of which receive only the most cursory glancing-over) while an inordinate amount of time is spent on Thatcher’s supposed greatest “triumph,” the bloody-and-completely-unnecessary Falkland Islands conflict, which is ultimately portrayed only in the most glowing terms after a curosry nod is given to the lives that were lost in this pointless last stand of British imperialism. Subjects even more damaging to the Thatcher legacy, such as Denni’s unsavory business dealings and Maggie’s early embrace of the racist government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia aren’t even mentioned at all.

That being said, Streep does, indeed, draw you in so completely with the force of her portrayal that you find yourself absorbed by Thatcher’s life story in spite of yourself. You know you’re being hoodwinked into viewing this highly divisive figure through the most rose-colored lenses possible, but you lose the urge to fight against it, and that, depending on how you look at things,is either The Iron Lady‘s greatest triumph or most unforgivable blasphemy.

Look, let’s not confuse the issue here by saying I’m equating them in any way, but I’m sure a skilled actor could present Hitler or Mussolini in humanistic terms that gave us some level of heretofore-unexpected insight into how they ended up doing what they did as well, but is that a noble goal in any way, shape, or form? Let’s recall that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that giving a portrayal of Charles Manson that was considered “too sympathetic” in Helter Skelter derailed the once-promising career of Steve Railsback, yet Margaret Thatcher  —and, for that matter, Tony Blair, David Cameron,  Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Jr., Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, etc. — ordered their followers to chalk up body counts greater than anything Manson could have ever dreamed of, yet Streep is more or less guaranteed on Oscar for her (admittedly superlative) work on this picture. But I guess the whole debate as to why individual criminals are “evil,” while it’s perfectly acceptable for the heads of the  world’s governments to function as CEOs of the Fortune 500 of mass-murder, is beyond the scope of a simple movie review to tackle.

In short, then, this is a film that really does succeed in exactly what it sets out to do (even if the film’s Weinstein-driven publicity machine is less than honest about what that ultimate goal is) — it humanizes the life story of an extremely controversial figure, one who prided herself on being thoughtful and calculating and seldom if ever showed emotion, to the point where even her fiercest critics will walk away feeling some shred of empathy for her and will find themselves being more accepting, at the very least, of some of the decisions she made. Whether or not you consider such an aim to be at all worthwhile will largely determine how much you enjoy, or are ultimately disenchanted by, The Iron Lady.

Some months ago, I recall seeing a survey conducted of viewers of the Fox “news” channel that laid out the peculiar particularities of how this brainwashed set of folks see the world, and while I don’t have the exact survey results handy (and am frankly too tired to google them so you’ll just have to trust me), most of the results were pretty unsurprising — huge majorities felt that “America was always a force for good in the world,” “Barack Obama was probably not really born in the United States,” “White Christians are the most persecuted group of people in our country,” “the rich already pay more than their fair share in taxes,” etc. One question given to, and the subsequent answer given by, these people who consider the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly responsible purveyors of journalistic truth, however, did knock me for a loop — well over 50% of them (again, the exact number escapes me) apparently believe that “Canadians are envious of the US and wish they were Americans.”

To which all I can say is — go tell that to our northern neighbors and see how many friends you make. I’m betting the answer will be zero. Anti-Americanism has been on a steady upswing in the Great White North for well over a decade now, and not without good reason as we continuously seek to throw our military muscle around in the world and do our level best to bribe/cajole/beg/politely threaten the Canucks into joining us. Sometimes they join in (Afghanistan) and sometimes they refuse (Iraq), but no matter which way their government goes, the net cumulative effect of us constantly trying to get them to go along with our hare-brained military adventurism on Joe and Jane Canada has been a completely understandable (for those of us who don’t watch Fox) weariness at best, and open hostility at worst, toward the United States and our purported “global interests.”

In short, most Canadians are hardly “envious” of us, more or less none of them “wish they were Americans,” and greater and greater numbers of them just wish we’d leave them the hell alone. So for those of you who think it’s a reach for me to be including a Canadian film in our “international weirdness” series here at TFG (ha! just when you thought none of this had anything to do with anything!), let me assure you that Canada is, indeed, a foreign country, and its residents generally pride themselves on this fact — as well they should.

What they probably shouldn’t be too proud of, though, is director Alain Zaloum’s 1990 dull-as-dirt, lensed-in-Quebec “erotic thriller” (marketed in its straight-to-VHS packaging as a horror film, for some reason) Madonna : A Case Of Blood Ambition.

Clearly marketed (to the extent that it even was — Canuck distributor Atlas Video didn’t put much muscle behind promoting this straight-to-video snoozefest, and it barely made it south of the border at all) to cash in on the worldwide buzz surrounding the Queen of Pop’s then-current “Blonde Ambition” tour, this is a listless little tale of a supposed “femme fatale” that couldn’t even crack the Skinemax lineup at the time, even though that’s quite obviously the sort of “viewing platform” it was clearly intended for.

Our story here revolves around a mild-mannered ( that’s polite-speak for hopelessly dull, in case you didn’t know) Montreal (I think) ad executive named Richard (Erik Kramer, in a soul-crushingly lackluster performance that gives “going through the motions” a bad name) who becomes so enthralled by a new client’s ladyfriend, Laura (the reasonably attractive, but not worth trashing your entire home and family life over as dumbshit is about to do, Deborah Mansy — who can at least sort of act, although I doubt she’s doing much of it today) that he soon loses all sense, subsumes himself in their passionless-on-camera-but-supposedly-passionate-on-paper affair (this flick was apparently based on a semi-popular Canadian-grocery-store-shelf romance novel), and tells his wife and kid to take a fucking hike.

There’s just one problem — Laura isn’t really Laura at all, she’s a serial homewrecker/vengeance artist named Francesca Madonna (yes, that’s our only tenuous connection to the Material Girl herself — the main character’s middle name) Leone, who’s selecting the targets of her little adultery-leading-to-murder (she hopes) scheme for one very specific reason. Will Richard wise up before it’s too late? And is he even the real ultimate object of her Machiavellian machinations?

I think a better question here would actually be “should you even care?,” the answer to which, if you have any sense at all, is a resounding “no.” Much as I’m predisposed toward absolutely loving any edited-on-video, direct-to-VHS cheapie that’s blatantly marketed to tie in with something (or, in this case, someone) it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with (and kudos to its US distributors, who had the cajones to just release this festering pile of dreariness under the simpler, but even less honest, title of Madonna), the fact is that Madonna : A Case Of Blood Ambition just doesn’t successfully do anything it sets out to do. For a wanna-be-Shannon-Tweed-style skin flick there’s very little skin on display, what skin there is just isn’t very interesting, and as far as the “thriller”/mystery aspect of the whole story — well, let’s just say it’s supremely uninvolving and leave it at that, shall we?

If you absolutely must see this film and/or have so little regard for my opinion that you figure if I say it sucks then it must have something going for it, then you’re in luck since Madonna : A Case Of Blood Ambition has just been released on DVD paired on a double-bill with another early-90s-Canadian-made DTV less-than-favorite, Voodoo Dolls, as part of Code Red’s Maria’s B-Movie Mayhem series hosted by former WWE sorta-star Maria Kanellis. Extras are sparse (unless you count Maria’s intros and a few Code Red trailers as “extras” — oh, and let’s not forget her music video for her debut single, “Fantasy” — or, rather, let’s), and both films look like pretty poor straight-from-VHS full-screen transfers (although in fairness Voodoo Dolls does look a little bit better), but of special mention here is the sound quality on these two flicks — it’s absolutely horrible! The mix is 2.0 stereo and you have to crank your receiver (or TV) way up to even hear any of the dialogue, it’s buried so far back behind the lame musical score, extemporaneous background noise, etc. Seriously, this is as unprofessional in the sound department as it gets, which is a real disappointment since Code Red usually does a great job with this stuff.

Then again, maybe they’re just trying to spare you,given that if you leave the volume at a normal level, you really won’t hear anything at all — but you won’t be missing much.

I know, I know — I should’ve known better, I really should have. But last January brought us a dead-of-winter studio- dump-off exorcism flick(The Rite) that (admittedly modestly) transcended expectations, so I thought hell, why not?

My mistake. Director/Co-Writer William Brent Bell’s The Devil Inside, supposedly — ahem! — “inspired by true events” (a term so vague as to be less than meaningless — given that our story here revolves around a young woman whose mother killed three people while she was being exorcised and said daughter’s journey to Rome to “reconnect” (or something) with mom after not seeing her for many years I’m thinking the only “true event” that needs to have occurred for this film to “base” itself on is that some girl at some point in time had a mom who underwent an exorcism) had damn well better end up being one of the worst films of 2012 or else we’re in for a very bad, and very long, year.

Eternal optimist (ha!) that I am, tough, I’ll start off by highlighting some of the film’s few good points : the SPFX aren’t too bad, especially the body-contortion stuff. The acting is passable enough. Romania makes a passable stand-in-on-the-cheap for the Vatican. And that’s about it.

Now for the more lengthy list of flaws, and please bear with me here! First off, the film’s use of  “handheld” or “DIY” -style camerawork is uninspired throughout, and downright implausible in many instances, such as on the numerous occasions where the long-suffering “documentarian” of the piece, Michael (Ionut Grama), is actually visible in-shot with his fucking camera? Huh? Who exactly is doing the filming in these sequences, then? Never mind, because that’s nothing compared to the gaping plot holes on offer here,so — spoiler alert! — here’s a rundown of just some of the more glaring ones for your edification —

The woman whose exorcism is at the heart of the story here, one Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) is sentenced to spend the rest of her life in the bughouse by the courts here in the good ol’ US of A, and is then — get this — transferred to a mental hospital in Rome. Did you know our legal system worked that way? I sure didn’t.

Next up, we’ve got the pesky little backstory provided by one of the priests performing secret, unauthorized-by-the-Vatican exorcisms (the other half of the duo being Father David, played by Evan Helmuth, who fulfills the stereotypical doomed-priest-in-an-Exorcist-knock-off’s role) that our story’s heroine, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) latches onto in her quest to get some help for her mom. This guy, Father Ben (Simon Quarterman), lays down the following whoppers in the space of just a few sentences : his father was a Catholic priest who performed exorcisms (huh? I didn’t think they were allowed to have families), dad started taking him along with him to these exorcisms when he was just 13 years old (double huh? are exorcists now participating in bring-your-kid-to-work day?), and by age 17 he was already performing exorcisms on his own (triple huh? he couldn’t have even been ordained as a priest by that age).

If that’s still not enough for you, how about the scene where the two priests, Isabella, and Michael all go in to see possessed-Mom and are somehow allowed to bring in all their own heart-rate-monitoring and other medical equipment even though the Holy See has expressly forbidden this ragtag crew from doing any of this shit?  Okay, fair enough, the movie explains that the facility mommie dearest is kept in isn’t technically within Vatican walls, but no hospital, mental or physical, is going to allow you to wheel all that stuff in when you’re visiting a patient.

Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but The Devil Inside actually requires the audience to have no capacity to think whatsoever in order for it to be taken even remotely seriously. The fact that it’s never even remotely scary certainly doesn’t help matters much either, but let’s not kid ourselves, that’s not even much of an expectation these days, so we won’t hold that against it — not that we really even need to. This is an absurd, abominably lousy flick in pretty much any and every other respect, and who knows? Maybe it really will, finally, be the last nail in the coffin for the whole “handheld-horror” subgenre. Although that assumption has certainly been made way too many times to count at this point.

First off, let me wish a very happy 2012 to any and all TFG readers — I hope the new year finds you healthy, wealthy, and wise (or any combination thereof, really), and I guess there’s nothing for us to do now but kick back for the next 365 days (well, okay, 359 and counting as I write this) and see if the Mayans had it right after all. Actually, though, perusing much of the hysteria surrounding this, our latest potential apocalypse, I find a lot of people hedging their bets well in advance — the so-called “New Age” set, particularly, seems rather enthralled with this whole notion that 2012 marks not the end, but rather some kind of (frustratingly, truth be told) vague new beginning. They say a “global consciousness transformation” or somesuch is about to take place, and frankly I hope they’re right because, let’s not kid ourselves, as a species we sure could use one.

All of which brings us, in a rather roundabout (my nice way of saying completely forced) way to the subject of today’s cinematic missive, 1966’s wannabe-lurid The Black Klansman (also marketed under the blatantly sexualized title of I Crossed The Color Line in various parts of the country, most notably southern drive-ins, the alternate poster showing the white girlfriend of the light-skinned supposedly “black” star of the film in her underwear, playing up the “mixed-race relationship” then-taboo even though it hasn’t got much to do with the film itself and crossing the color line refers much more specifically in the context of this flick to the protagonist’s act of going undercover (no pun intended) as a white guy to infiltrate the KKK — but more on that in a minute) , a collaboration between veteran exploitation producer Joe Solomon and soon-to-be-veteran exploitation director (as well as unabashed polygamist) Ted V. Mikels. ‘Cuz let’s face it, folks — as backward-ass and hopelessly (perhaps irredeemably) fucked as the overall state of human consciousness is today, back in ’66 it was a whole lot worse.

Anyway, this is typical “ripped from the headlines” (the headlines of the time, mind you) stuff — extremely light-skinned black man Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gilden — who is, in actuality, white) lives a hip, bohemian lifestyle as a newspaper photographer/part-time jazz musician in Los Angeles. He’s so cool that he’s even got, as mentioned previously, a liberated white chick for a girlfriend. But in the midst of all the riots and disruption in America, it’s fair to say that Jerry’s one conflicted cat — he’s got no beef with whitey out west, and fits into “The Man”‘s scene pretty well. But deep down inside he knows his people are still getting a pretty raw deal down south, and he isn’t doing anything to help out in the struggle. All that’s about to change, though, when Jerry gets a phone call from his mama back home in Alabama informing him that his little girl, who he left with her to raise after his wife died so he could go be a cool swingin’ single out in la-la land on his own, was killed when the local yokels from the Klan firebombed their church (and yes, this film breaks the “don’t show the kid getting killed onscreen” bugaboo). Suddenly Jerry snaps. He tosses his white girlfriend out of bed and even tries to strangle her before regaining his senses and deciding to channel his rage in a positive direction. Why kill a white girl who likes you when all you have to do is straighten your hair, go back home, join the Klan, and bring all those no-good mothers down?

And that’s pretty much the whole setup in a nutshell — out guy Jerry passes for white, ingratiates himself with the local KKK leader by promising him money to set up a new California chapter (there’s a brief allusion to internecine Klan politics and the “struggle” of independent klans vs. their national organization, but whatever), and hatches his master plan to break up their network of mayhem and evil from within. There’s a little bit of “tension” when Jerry’s girlfriend and best buddy show up in his hometown to find him, and when some Nation Of Islam-types from new York come down to organize the local black community (Mikels and co. are definitely more sympathetic to MLK’s approach to racial reconciliation than to Malcolm X’s), but you never really get the sense that anything’s going to pose to great a threat to his end goal of bringing the men who killed his daughter to justice.

All in all, though, simple as it is, The Black Klansman is a pretty dent little piece of milquetoast confrontationalism. Sure, it can’t live up to its own self-imposed hype (it’s hardly “the most shattering film of our time!,” and it was shot in and around Riverside, California rather than”filmed in complete secrecy in the deep south!”), but that’s part of the charm with these second-and third-billed drive-in efforts, as is the atrocious (and I do mean atrocious — everyone in this film is lousy) acting,unconvincing day-for-night continuity, etc. Go with the flow or go home, as they say. And hey, while the film doesn’t look particularly gutsy now, when there’s little, if any, doubt about who was on the right and wrong side of the whole civil rights struggle (and there should be none), the fact remains that at the time making a movie like this did take a certain amount of balls (though not as much as Solomon and his ad-men would lead you to believe), even if its ultimate aim had more to do with making a buck than it did to contributing to the social consciousness.

The Black Klansman was finally released on DVD from Code Red (who else?) a couple months back in a pleasing little tongue-in-cheek package (check out the main menu screen to see what I mean) that includes a very sharp remastered 1.85:1 telecine transfer from the original camera negatives, two full-length commentary tracks (one with the always-engaging Ted V. Mikels, the other with makeup artist Byrd Holland), and on-camera interview with star Gilden, the original theatrical trailer as well as the usual assemblage of trailers for other Code Red titles, alternate opening credits featuring the I Crossed The Color Line title, and a bogus non-feature on “white people who act black.” Overall, it’s a more- than- satisfying release for a surprisingly more-than-satisfying film. Take that, you no-good crackers!