Posts Tagged ‘film’

Even among connoisseurs of “this sort of thing,” director Donald M. (not to be confused with Donald S. of The Forest and Schoolgirls In Chains fame) Jones’ low-rent straight-to-video slasher Muderlust has something of a checkered reputation for being nastier than the norm. Shot in California in 1985 for next to nothing, it was released straight to VHS in 1987 and quickly managed to raise a few eyebrows — among the few who were paying attention — for its downright gleeful misogyny, which reminded one youthful viewer (okay, me) of, say, what you’d end up with if Maniac didn’t take itself very seriously. But does that make this film less disturbing than others of its ilk — or more?

I gotta admit, having recently watched it for the first time since I was a teenager thanks to its recent addition to Amazon Prime’s streaming line-up (although Severin Films’ “cult” Intervision label has also recently released it on DVD paired with another Jones quickie, the almost-unfathomably bizarre Project Nightmare), I still don’t know the answer to that question. On the one hand, “star” Eli Rich is so clearly hamming it up as uber-woman-hating killer Steve Belmont that you can’t take much of anything on offer here too seriously, but on the other, if you have a conscience, then shit — shouldn’t this stuff bug you at least a little bit?

The character of Steve is clearly based on notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, a smooth-talking creep who pulled off a fairly successful pose as an upstanding member of society for many years until his nocturnal proclivities finally landed him in hot water. Steve’s not provided with anything by way of motivation of anything here — no troubled past, no fucked-up home life, nothing of the sort — so don’t bother looking for “reasons why” : he just hates women and kills ’em whenever he can. He’s not averse to fucking ’em, too, of course, but he doesn’t necessarily seem to need to in order to get his rocks off — it’s their dispatching and disposal that really turns his crank, and he’s gotten so prolific about it that his Mojave Desert dumping ground gets discovered by the authorities in fairly short order here. Not that he has any intention of stopping, mind you. He’s gotten a taste for it, and he seems to enjoy taunting both the cops and the community at large with his brazen what-by-all-rights-should-be recklessness.

The damn thing is, though, Steve’s such a fuck-up that he really oughtta get caught. He doesn’t seem to care about holding onto his shit security guard gig (and doesn’t for long once he starts threatening to kill a female customer right under the nose of his boss), he lives in a dump, he’s constantly borrowing money off his effete cousin, Neil (played by Dennis Gannon), he’s in heavy debt to his landlord (curiously referred to in producer/screenwriter James Lane’s script as his “realtor”), and he drinks like a fish. How this guy manages to get through the day without getting killed himself, much less being the one doing the killing, is downright dumbfounding. With extra emphasis on the “dumb.”

Still, they love him down at the church. Despite having no background in any relevant field, being a half-assed Sunday school teacher, and even being accused of molesting one of his students (a charge that Steve is, believe it or not, innocent of), he’s chosen by the church fathers to run their new so-called “Youth Crisis Center,” thanks in no small part to some very glowing recommendations from his quasi-love interest, Cheryl (Rochelle Taylor), and her mother, who are both completely fooled by his painfully transparent charm. Yessir, things are definitely looking up for ol’ Steve — until, in a rather delicious moment of irony, his extracurricular habits end up scuttling his plans to use the center as a means to find, sorry to use the term, fresh meat. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no direct connection made between Steve and the ever-growing pile of dead female bodies (yet), but the moneyed interests bankrolling the new outreach venture decide that it might be better to start helping young people out after they’re all done getting killed, and that’s when our “hero” well and truly loses his shit — okay, fair enough, that’s when he loses it even more.

It’s probably a heck of a reach to say that losing out on his dream job causes Steve to get sloppy, ‘cuz let’s face it,  he’s been damn sloppy from the outset, but he certainly cans all that “nice guy” pretext and starts letting it all hang out, and once he does that, it’s only a matter of time. Again, if you can see the “humor” in watching a madman murder women just because, well, they’re women, then you’re gonna be in much better shape here as events careen toward their one and only inevitable conclusion, but even then you might be forgiven for feeling that Murderlust‘s admittedly fleeting “je ne sais quoi” has already fled. Rich naturally radiates a kind of dime-store lothario sleaze for the first 3/4 or so of this flick, but he’s markedly less convincing in “out of control psycho” mode, and there’s a very distinct sense in the film’s final act that everybody’s running out the clock as surely as the clock is running out for our protagonist. As a result, Jones’ little opus essentially flips the switch from “guilty pleasure” to “just plain guilty” without even bothering to pass “go” and collect its $200.

Which may not be too far off the mark from the actual budget of this production, come to think of it. Shot in just a few locations, with a clearly amateur cast, and displaying nothing like an actual sense of style, this is straight-up, no-frills, point-and-shoot stuff that has no other choice than to feel hopelessly dated at this point because, hey, a moldy relic is all it could ever afford to become. And yet the modern world had probably already left this one pretty far behind even as it was being made — I doubt, for instance, that you could still beat a child molestation rap by simply telling the girl’s father that his daughter is a filthy little liar, as Steve does here (albeit politely, of course) in 1985. Probably not even in 1958. So if this really is the “throwback to another time” that many view it as, trust me when I say it’s a throwback to a time that (hopefully, at any rate) never even existed.

And maybe that’s the one nearest thing to a “redeeming quality” that Murderlust has to offer. There’s certainly no blood or guts here to make the gorehounds happy. There’s very little nudity apart from the quick bit provided by the always-game-to-get-naked-for-a-paycheck Ashley St. Jon. And there’s no particular indication from Jones that he has any concerns as a filmmaker apart from getting this thing in the can on time and under its obviously ultra- low budget. As a result, then — and an entirely accidental result, at that — what we have here is a flick that is completely divorced from actual, demonstrable reality, yet just as completely devoid of both the resources and the talent it would take to sell you on a false one. It can’t be bothered to attempt to suspend your disbelief, and so takes the easy (and only available) road, settling instead for admitting it’s total bullshit from the start. That’s not what you’d call a recipe for cinematic success by any stretch, but it’s been more than enough to ensure that this film has remained a morbid curiosity for three decades now, and will probably continue to be seen as such for many more to come. After all, not only do they not make ’em like this anymore — truth be told, they never really did.

Okay, I’m showing my age here, but for members of the so-called “Slacker Generation” and/or “Generation X” (take your pick), I would submit that there was an entirely unofficial (as was our wont) “Holy Trinity” of films that came out in our early twenties that spoke directly and immediately to us in a way that pandering, condescending trash that Hollywood marketers were aiming in our direction (I’m looking at you, Reality Bites) could only hope to — three flicks that captured the (not to be too grandiose) zeitgeist of the times; the flavor, immediacy, and ethos of the “now” that went on, as all things do, to become just another “then.”

The goofy thing about this “Big Three” is that only one of them actually featured characters who were our age at the time, but whatever, we’ll get to that in short order. For now, the rundown : Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction came first and was (and remains) the biggest of the bunch.  I don’t think anyone — even the film’s detractors — would debate that. It was a genuine large-scale cultural phenomenon, it solidified its auteur as one of the spokespeople of his (our) generation, all that. It was huge. It was groundbreaking. It was bigger than its own hype, and its hype was considerable. It was The Real Deal.

Next up came perhaps the most unlikely of the bunch : Joel and Ethan Coen were bona fide heroes for “20-something” cinephiles in the 1990s, but Fargo catapulted them to the top of Hollywood’s “A-list” by finding a way to be “mass-audience-friendly” without compromising its creators’ idiosyncratic vision. Again, it was a fairly massive cross-cultural sensation, but its sensibilities were very much of a piece with the “slacker” set’s view of life, or at least life as we perceived it to be at that time. Which may or may not have been an accurate perception, but that’s entirely — or at least almost — beside the point. It was really cool, and being cool was what it was all about — even if it was  uncool to admit that.

The third and final member of the triumvirate, as you’ve no doubt already guessed, was Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the bad-attitude, gleefully nihilistic runt of this particular celluloid litter. More punk than grunge, more gut-punching than gut-spilling, this flick swapped out the sudden and shocking gross-out violence of its two just-barely-forebears in favor of shocking gross-out bodily -function gags, it knew — hell, wallowed in — its place in the gutter, and it came out of nowhere (okay, Scotland) to hit its audience like a jolt of the”white lightning” its junkie protagonists would no doubt be familiar with provided they were actually, ya know, real people.

Here’s the thing about all three of these films, though — sure, they’ve aged, but I would contend that each of them has aged pretty darn well, and what’s more, they all stand on their own just fine. Okay, yeah, Fargo has spawned a spin-off TV show that seemed like a clever enough idea for one season then quickly out-stayed its welcome with two, but come on : no one was clamoring for a sequel to any of them. But when Irvine Welsh, upon whose novel Trainspotting was based, went back to the well for both sequels and prequels on the printed page, you knew it was probably only a matter of time before Boyle followed suit on the silver screen.

And so he did. 2017 has seen T2 Trainspotting hit British cinemas first, and then make its way over to this side of the pond so that we can all see what became — or is now becoming — of Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (played, of course, by Ewan McGregor), former “Sick Boy” Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), “still just” Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the one and only Begbie (Robert Caryle), who is generally answering to the name of Franco now, but is probably, if you care to believe it, even more psychotic than ever. So, yeah, the band’s back together — but do they still sound any good?

That’s the question those of us who love the original have been nervously asking ourselves, but as it turns out we needn’t have worried — too much. Oh, sure, there are some stylistic “call-backs” to the first film that have clearly been inserted purely for nostalgia’s sake, but Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge address that right in the script fairly early on, and besides, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is one of the major themes underlying this entire enterprise. The circumstances of all our principal characters may have changed, but whether or not any of them have really moved on is open for debate : Mark’s been living in Amsterdam, but his illusion of middle-class normalcy is in the midst of falling apart around him when he makes his return home; Simon is trying to make it as a low-rent blackmailer with his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedlaykova) as bait since the pub he inherited isn’t exactly doing bang-up business; Spud’s still a smack-shooting mess who’s barely surviving (and very nearly doesn’t right out of the gate here in the only scene that can rival its progenitor for sheer “eeewwww” factor); and Begbie — well, shit, he’s in prison. Where else would he be?

Okay, yeah, everyone wants payback — in cash and blood — from Mark for ripping them all off last time around, but once that particular hurdle is overcome (alright, one person can’t let go of his grudge no matter what; bet you can guess who) everyone falls back into their traditional roles with disturbing ease : Mark and Simon, ever the scammers and schemers, are undertaking to pull off their most audacious hustle yet but can’t trust either each other or, crucially, themselves, while Spud does all the dirty work without complaint, not exactly happy to be along for the ride, but along for it all the same. All the leads get back under the skin of their characters effortlessly, but there are a few intriguing wrinkles added into the mix that prevent the film from devolving into either pure navel-gazing self-examination or a “retro-for-its-own sake” thematic and narrative cul-de-sac. Spud, for instance, has a hitherto-untapped creative side that may just hold the key to his salvation, and Mark and Simon may both be getting played by a third party who’s even better at the con game than either of them. So fear not, we’re not just running in place here, even if old habits (including, at least for one scene, heroin) do die hard.

Admittedly, “big questions” abound here (all of us 40-somethings wonder just how we got here, but how much more unanswerable does that become when you probably never expected to make it this long in the first place?), but that doesn’t mean we can’t have ourselves a good time just the same — Begbie’s prison break (oops! Spoilers!) and Mark and Simon’s fleecing of a pub packed to the gills with drunken loyalists are all kinds of way-off-color fun, so sure, there’s enough bat-shit lunacy to remind us of just what sort of people we’re (still) dealing with here — there’s just less of it. These guys are middle-aged, after all, and maybe that’s the message Boyle and company are really aiming to address at the end of the day : whether you figured you’d be around to see it or not, whether you can make peace with it or not, whether any of it makes any more sense than it used to or not, age comes to us all. It’s gonna deal with you regardless of whether or not you can deal with it. So, ya know, worry about it all you want, I suppose — just not all the time.

Or do. It’s your call. Your choice. But I would say choose to look back on the past — even immerse yourself in it every now and then — without wallowing in it. Choose to accept your fate without being resigned to it. Choose to make of things what you can, while you can. Choose to go for one more big score even if you fall short, one more crazy night even if it might be your last, and one more stupid risk just because it’s there to be taken. Choose to reject happy endings, sad endings, or endings of any sort for as long as you can; to remind yourself of why your old friends bring out the best and worst in you at the same time; to resist going quietly while you can still make a little bit of noise. Choose to buck against inevitability even if it’s inevitable that you’ll buckle, to keep on dreaming no matter how small your dreams become, and to give a well-deserved middle finger to anyone who stands in your way. Choose T2 Trainspotting for the most unexpectedly — maybe even accidentally — life-affirming film you’ll probably see all year, and choose to love it, every minute of it, just as much for what it is as for what it reminds you of.

 

I keep hearing great things about Logan. People say it’s the best “X-flick” of the bunch. I’m looking forward to seeing it, but I just haven’t had the time yet. Or, perhaps I should say, I haven’t made the time yet — but I probably should have made it the other night, because I stayed home and watched 2016 indie no-budget horror Jack Logan on Amazon Prime instead, and guess what? That turned out to be a huge mistake.

This Florida-shot travesty comes to us courtesy of one-man wrecking crew Al Carter, who directed the flick, produced it, wrote the script and, according to the credits, served several other functions such as “key gaffer,” as well. He even found time to get in front of the camera for a spell as a character dubbed “Hey Mister,” but the less said about that, the better. Which, now that I think about it, isn’t a half-bad tack to take in regards to the entire film, but what the hell, we’ve come this far —

Our setup here proceeds thusly : six friends (Spencer Strickland as Kim, Melissa Hansen as Kora, Joshua Roux as Ben, Giselle Cidserrano as Sam, Zulma Sandchez as Nessa, and Tiona Hill as Page) are heading out for a weekend of “roughing it” on St. George Island, a place Kora’s heard about since her youth, when her mom would tell her stories about their family’s ancestors who, along with other “concerned” citizens, were determined to develop the area against the wishes of a travelling gypsy band led by one Jack Logan (LeRone Reid) who had taken to calling the place home. You can’t stand in the way of progress and expect to get away with it for too long, of course, so one fateful day in 1920 the gypsies were wiped out en masse and Logan was buried alive (sadistic bastards these would-be settlers), but you already know how that’s gonna turn out — he’s gonna rise up out of the grave and take his revenge on everyone. And so he apparently did, even though some of ’em seem to have gone on to have kids and grandkids, but whatever. Nobody fucks with the island anymore and that, as they say, is that.

Until now, when a bunch of annoying early-20-somethings with sex and partying on their minds figure they know better than the generations of folks who have come before. Yeah, that’s sure to work out well.

Garden-variety death, mayhem, and destruction ensue, with our uniformly horseshit actors being picked off one by one until they’re all gone, and while watching these folks try to play movie star is fun for about ten minutes, it really does grate pretty quickly. When it comes to these homemade numbers I’m always mindful to check (as in lower) my expectations accordingly, of course, but even by the more-than-generous standards I usually judge these sorts of things by, Carter’s flick is a dull, hackneyed, entirely predictable affair. If you can’t see everything coming you must be blind, but when it comes to watching Jack Logan, trust me when I say that blindness is probably a blessing. I know I was ready to claw my eyes out to spare myself any more suffering well before the halfway point of this monstrosity.

The goofiest thing about it all (among many contenders) is that Carter not only sets things up for a sequel no one in their right mind could possibly care about, he even goes so far as to give us a cursory last-second introduction to the principal cast members for part two and slaps on a “to be continued” notice right before the credits roll. I guess quitting while he’s ahead is a concept he’s unfamiliar with (not that he’s in any way “ahead,” so maybe it’s a moot point), but you, good reader, are not nearly so stupid. Not only are you going to take a richly-deserved pass on Jack Logan 2, you’re not even going to bother with the first one — right? Heck, I’d even go so far as to beg you to stay away from it, but I’ve compromised enough of my dignity, self-respect, and even sanity by sitting through this flick to the bitter (non-) end, and I refuse to debase myself any further.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about following the “career arc” of cartoonist/screenwriter Daniel Clowes is noticing the subtle shift that his work has taken toward the cautiously optimistic over the years. I’ve been a major fan of his for about as long as he’s been at it, and there’s not a single of his “major” works that I don’t consider to be flat-out masterful, but the outright nihilism of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron shifted a few degrees toward the sympathetic unease of Ghost World , which then gave way to the happy-but-ultimately doomed resolution of David Boring, and then the bleak everyday hopelessness of Ice Haven and the quiet loss of a largely illusory past in The Death-Ray. One way or another, though, the message always seemed to be a variation on the idea that we were all destined to be slowly and silently crushed by the weight of silent but ever-present cosmic forces beyond our very comprehension, much less our control, and while later, post-Eightball graphic novels/novellas such as WilsonMister Wonderful, and the recently-published Patience don’t necessarily contradict that premise, they do each offer something of a suggestion that there’s a way to at least peacefully give in to, perhaps even co-exist with, this awareness of the inevitable. If you think about the fact that every day brings us one step nearer to the grave and that we’re each of us prisoners of our own foibles and shortcomings, sure, it would be enough to drive you nuts — but if you quit fighting against all that and instead call some sort of truce with with it, who knows? Maybe you’ll find some sort of contentment, perhaps even a semblance of happiness. It’s worth a try, at any rate.

The first two cinematic adaptations of Clowes’ work, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, offered reasonable-enough approximations of the core ideas explored by each on the comics page, and certainly director Terry Zwigoff seemed sympathetic to the idea of maintaining their integrity, but either a lot was lost in translation (Ghost World) or too much was added to it (Art School Confidential), resulting in a couple of films that were, at least in my view, rather up-and-down affairs. I certainly recommend seeing both, but I can’t pretend that they’re altogether successful. In certain respects they’re wildly so, but in others, they try hard but still miss the mark.

Which brings us up to the now. Working once again from a screenplay by the cartoonist himself, director Craig Johnson went off and made his own film (in my hometown of Minneapolis, no less — great to see my parents’ building on the screen as well as an appearance from Joe Minjares, owner of local Mexican restaurant institution Pepito’s, as a cab driver) without the same level of day-to-day involvement that Zwigoff afforded/extended to his collaborator. Surprisingly, the end result is probably the most faithful, in terms of both tone and content, of any of the “Clowes flicks,” and also the best of the bunch. Don’t ask me how that came to pass, but I’m downright ecstatic that it did.

The idea that the titular one-named character of Wilson is a stand-in for his creator is certainly accentuated by the uncanny physical resemblance achieved by star Woody Harrelson, but in many ways he’s more the sort of “unconventional everyman” we all know : the middle-aged guy who never “got his shit together” (there’s no mention of him having a job, for instance) and seems as lost at 50 as he was at 30 — heck, at 20. A lot of that is down to his own immaturity, to be sure, but he’s so ultimately harmless (to others, that is) that he’s definitely plenty lovable despite not being particularly likable. Still, even for a person this stuck in their ways, things happen that subtly shift their perspective, and for Wilson, the death of his largely-estranged father kicks off a bout of fear of his own mortality that sends him on a low-key odyssey to get back in touch with his fallen-on-hard-times ex-wife, Pippi (played by the always-exceptional Laura Dern), only to learn he has a now-teenage daughter named Claire (Isabella Amara) that he never knew about and who was given up for adoption. When the now-reunited “lovers” decide to interject themselves into their offspring’s life you know it’s going to go south, but watching it happen is both strangely heartwarming and massively entertaining. Wilson is an off-kilter personality, to be sure, but even at his weirdest he doesn’t do anything you couldn’t see someone vaguely like him doing, and Harrelson is never less than more or less perfect in what feels like a role he was born to play. When things do go off the rails for him thanks to a confrontation between Pippi and her neurotic, hyper-competitive, malicious sister, Polly (Cheryl Hines), they really go off the rails, but the absurdity of ensuing events is more than mitigated — heck, it’s made doubly believable — by the relentlessly low-key, “we’ll get through this” tone adopted by Johnson and channeled through his terrific cast. Clowes’ graphic novel employed the inventive conceit of telling its story by means of a series of one-page strips illustrated in a rotation of easily-recognizable “Sunday Funnies” styles, and while that would be impossible to faithfully translate visually to film without being jarring, the easy-going flow Johnson establishes at the outset and sticks to throughout cleaves to the temperament inherent in the book without being slavishly beholden to its exact technique. It works marvelously, in case you hadn’t already figured that much out, and if you’re not utterly engrossed by this film’s easy-going humor, lovingly-illustrated losers, and deep (without being overbearing) implicit understanding of the human condition, shit — I don’t know what it takes to make you happy.

And for much of the film, Wilson doesn’t seem to know what it will really take to make himself happy, either — he’s grasping for a “happily ever after” that never feels entirely out of reach, but his ill-considered actions ensure that he’s never more than a false move or two away from fucking it all up, either. The late-game arrival of his long-suffering dog-sitter, Shelly (Judy Greer), in a more prominent role in his life offers a last chance to get things right, but, as with all things, that could go either way, too. You can’t help but root for Wilson (heck, for everyone) until right up to the end, but unless and until he learns to find a measure of appreciation for what he has and how to let go of the way he wishes things could be, the ever-present, if largely unremarked-upon, tension that has underpinned his entire adult life will continue unabated. Watching how this all plays out is yet another of the film’s central joys, and even though Wilson’s utter cluelessness can be infuriating, it’s somehow never annoying. That takes deft scripting, direction, and acting to pull off, and damn if all parts of that trifecta aren’t present and accounted for here.

Everyday life is a deeply complex and multi-faceted affair even at its most purportedly “easy” times, and even if we don’t see it as such while it’s happening. Wilson is an unassumingly honest and humane reminder that even at its lowest ebb, there is something very much akin to magic to be found in it — if only we can allow ourselves to be our own best friend rather than our own worst enemy.

I’ll be the first to admit it : to the extent that I’ve racked up any “cool points” with my readers over the years, they’re pretty much all out the window by me admitting that I’ve even seen — much less bothered to review — director Bill Condon’s new live-action iteration of Disney’s animated classic Beauty And The Beast. The only pathetically tepid thing I can offer in my “defense” is that, judging by its mammoth performance at the box office, the entire rest of the fucking world has seen it, too, but still — it’s my job to be cynical to the point of obstinacy about this sort of production just as a matter of course, and to the extent that I’ve let any of you down by plopping down my hard-earned money on this blatantly saccharine offering, knowing full well what I was getting into from the outset, let me just apologize right off the bat and get it out of the way.

Oh, sure, I could reach and say the fact that the Christians are upset about this flick because it has the nerve to state the obvious fact that LeFou is gay (“just a little change — small to say the least”) and has a mad man-crush on Gaston was equal parts amusing and pathetic enough to sufficiently rouse my curiosity, but there’s really no saving face here. I was gonna end up seeing this thing come what may, and if you think I’m lame for that, then you’re gonna think I’m even more lame when I come right out and say that I actually liked it quite a bit, as well.  Bail out on this review right now, then, if you must — I certainly won’t hold it against you.

With all that out of the way, then, let’s get back to the question posed in my headline — how, exactly, do you successfully update a story that everyone knows already? In this case, Condon hit on exactly the right answer : apart from some minor tinkering around the edges, you pretty much don’t. The CGI advances of recent decades made a nominally “un-animated” (although a good 75% of this film was probably shot in front of a green screen) version of Beauty And The Beast more or less a no-brainer, but beyond the format shift, and necessary casting changes, there’s really no need to do anything different, and so what we have here at the end of the day isn’t so much a “remake” as it is a literal translation from cartoon to — well, shit, computerized cartoon with some actors along for the ride. Granted, some of the original’s shaky (to put it mildly) moral and ethical premises haven’t aged well (meet the girl of your dreams by taking her prisoner? Come on), but the musical numbers that are the real beating heart of the movie are bigger, bolder, and flawlessly executed here, the (slight) wrinkles peppered into the proceedings throughout deepen the tale’s mythology without contradicting anything, and by and large the casting choices are pitch-perfect : Emma Watson is Belle, plain and simple, Dan Stevens likewise nails is as The Beast, Luke Evans is pure arrogant sleaze as Gaston, Josh Gad’s take on LeFou is equal parts endearing and nauseating, Ewan McGregor is clearly having a blast as Lumiere, Ian McKellen is the only person you’d want to voice/later portray Cogsworth and delivers with aplomb, Stanley Tucci is an inspired choice as Cadenza, and Emma Thompson, well — she’s probably got the biggest shoes to fill as Mrs. Potts, but I think even Angela Lansbury herself would say “job well done” without hesitation for her work here. The only performer who seems to be a bit listless and/or lost is Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice, who (surprsingly) never really seems to have a handle on the character and ends up mailing things in about halfway through. Everybody else? Shoot, they shine.

All that being said, “what’s the point?” is a more than reasonable question to ask here — the original isn’t going anywhere, and this more or less note-for-note re-vamp doesn’t do anything to dispel the notion that it’s a naked cash grab that in no way needs to exist, but given that it was going to happen regardless, maybe the better query to be posing is “why not?” If you can put a cast this good together, get ’em (almost) all to knock it out of the park, and there’s a billion dollars or more waiting for you on the other side of the metaphorical rainbow, if you were Disney, why wouldn’t you do it? You’ve gotta be more than happy to meet this film on its own terms, sure — to suspend your understandable disdain for the company behind it, to overlook its previously-mentioned dubious subtexts, and to allow your desire for either glowingly-constructed nostalgia or simple “feel-good” entertainment to overrule your common sense — but if you’re willing to let it serve you up a heaping slice of good, old-fashioned “movie magic,” guess what? It’ll give you precisely that and then some.

There’s no shame, especially in this day and age, in wanting to simply escape for a couple of hours — after all, the president and half (or more) of his sleazy cronies appear to be working for a hostile foreign government, the congressional “authorities” charged with getting to the bottom of this treason appear to be playing defense for the administration, the open corruption and conflicts of interest oozing from many members of the cabinet is being buried under a deluge of even worse news, and our nuclear arsenal is now under the control of a bona fide mentally unstable nutcase. Either Trump is on borrowed time or our democracy is, and right now it’s hard to say which will end up surviving. We’re all under ridiculous amounts of psychological stress and the future — as in, whether or not we’re even gonna have one — has never appeared more uncertain. Who couldn’t stand to be transported away from this madness for a little while?

So go on — put your pride, and perhaps even your ethical standards, on the shelf for a bit. Turn off that pesky brain and just go with the flow that Condon and his skilled cohorts seamlessly pull you into within moments of this film starting. Don’t worry about it. Don’t feel guilty. You deserve this mindlessly delicious confection — certain as the sun rising in the east.

It’s probably not a great sign when a film sits on the shelf for six years, unreleased and undistributed, but such is the case with The Haunting Of Ellie Rose, a modest little low-budget number out of the UK from first-time director Tristan Versluis (who also co-wrote the script with Tim Major and Andy Thompson), a guy who’s apparently has made a name for himself as one of the top makeup artists in the British film and television industry — and has subsequently returned to that line of work. Again, probably not a great sign.

So, anyway,  yeah — this flick was actually filmed back in 2009, but hung around collecting dust until 2015, when it was finally released on DVD as well as onto various home viewing platforms, including Amazon Prime, which is how I caught it. I certainly wasn’t expecting much given what little I knew of the production’s backstory, it’s true, but hey — I’ve found celluloid diamonds in considerably rougher spots than this in the past. Would this then prove to be another pleasant, unexpected surprise?

The short answer to that, I’m sorry to say,  is “no,” but it’s not for lack of trying on Versluis’ part. His script here is paper-thin, to be sure — beaten down (emotionally, mentally, physically) by an abusive marriage, our protagonist (played by Eastenders star Lucy Benjamin), whose name you already know, splits from asshole husband Frank (Bill Ward) and returns to her disused family cabin, ostensibly on the US east coast, where flashbacks to her troubled childhood soon threaten to overtake her waking life and go some way toward amping up the apprehension she feels toward either splitting the scene, or staying where she is and awaiting the arrival of — someone. Honestly, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what is coming, if anything, but that’s a secondary concern for Versluis, since he spends most of his time piecing together where his central character has been.

In fact,in a very real sense, the present-day scenes in this film are just stage-setters for the flashbacks — Ellie stares out to sea a lot and pours herself one drink after another, and we do learn that an impending reunion with her younger sister, Chloe (Alexandra Moen), is what’s she’s so stressed about, but the real “action,” to the extent that it even exists, happens in the past, where we meet younger versions of Ellie and Chloe, as well as their emotionally distant mother, Rose (Kika Mirylees), whose supposed “transformation” from warm and loving parent to ice queen is still having reverberations in her daughters’ lives to this day. Although, ya know, stumbling across her dead body probably traumatized them a lot more —

I give Versluis credit for eschewing typical horror movie visual tropes in favor of a more “art house” look to his proceedings, but his disjointed time-jumps and rapid-fire editing do start to grate before too long. And by the fourth time we’re treated to a black-and-white flashback of the girls discovering their mother’s mutilated corpse, you’re more than ready to say “enough is enough.” The scenes look uniformly good, I’ll grant you that, but damn — they also looked good the first time, and once was plenty. Padding out a film is a necessary fact of life sometimes, sure, but when you go over the same ground over and over again and still only end up with an 80-minute feature,well, you’re in Nick Millard territory at that point.

The cast does a pretty decent job across the board here, particularly Benjamin (although all of them struggle with their American accents from time to time), but it’s not so much the quality of the material they’re given that holds them back as its sheer paucity. At the end of the day, The Haunting Of Ellie Rose feels like nothing so much as a 20-minute short extended far beyond its carrying capacity, and hoping desperately that some well-executed atmospherics can establish a pleasing enough “vibe” to distract you from the fact that there’s just not much happening here. It comes far short of pulling off that hustle, no question, but in strange way I do sort of admire Versluis and company for the earnestness with which they try to convince you that the appetizer they’re serving is actually a full meal.

 

 

Sometimes, friends, I just don’t even know where to begin.

I like to consider myself a fairly seasoned veteran when it comes to all things cinematically bad (I don’t call myself “Trash Film Guru” for nothing), but once in awhile something comes along that defies even my ground-down-over-time ability to adequately process. I’ve seen plenty of films that make no sense whatsoever — some good, some decidedly less so — but one thing even the most inexplicably bizarre servings of celluloid sewage have in common is that they were all trying to do something. Maybe it wasn’t something worth trying. Maybe it was something they flat-out shouldn’t have tried. But right or wrong, they all see it through to the end and sink or swim based on whatever fucking idea or premise they started out with.

Such is not the case with director John Hijiri’s 2009 zero-budget mega-turkey Jaws In Japan, which I caught earlier today streaming on Amazon Prime under its alternate international DVD (and whatever you do, I wouldn’t recommend sinking your hard-earned money into that) release title, Psycho Shark. This flick is like nothing I’ve ever seen simply because it seems to change its mind not once, but twice, about why it even exists. And as its thankfully brief 70-minute runtime drew to a close, all I could think is that it probably shouldn’t even exist at all.

Initially, Hijiri and screenwriter Yasutoshi Murakawa seem to be happy to simply dish out yet another Japanese bikini-romp, which makes sense given that its supposed “stars,” Nonami Takizawa and Airi Nakajima (as fun-loving college girls Miki and Mai, respectively) are what’s known as “gravure idols,” and neither of them can act worth a damn. Pretty early on, though, the decision is made that watching two admittedly quite pretty young ladies run around half-naked isn’t enough in and of itself to keep viewers interested if they’re not gonna get completely naked at some point, and so, while the “wear a swimsuit at all times” trope doesn’t go away, by any means, it’s simply steered into service of something that has the makings of an ostensible plot. Cue abrupt change number one.

This is the point at which our nubile co-eds find themselves completely lost on the island paradise they’re vacationing at and end up meeting a skeevy local who guides them to a hotel owned by a creep with blood under his fingernails who’s probably killing off tourists but, like an idiot, leaves their camcorders around for people like Miki and Mai to find. So, yeah, what we’re apparently looking at now is some sort of “found footage” serial killer flick.  And a damn boring one at that.

Unless, of course, roughly 45 mish-mashed minutes of watching shit “shaky-cam” footage, watching girls watching shit shaky-cam footage, and watching those same girls sleep, go to the beach, and take bikini-clad showers sounds gripping to you. There’s honestly more attention paid to — and more dialogue focused on — those ever-present bikinis than there is to the “killer on the loose” storyline, which is fair enough given that bikinis are more interesting than said storyline, but seriously — why not just make a “gravure” feature and leave it at that?

Evidently, Hijiri and Murakawa decided their “mockumentary”-style movie-within-a-movie wasn’t working out too well, either, so with approximately ten minutes to go, they abandon that conceit in favor of abrupt change number two : a giant CGI shark. Earlier scenes in this film borrowed obviously (and ineptly) from both Psycho and The Ring, but seriously, even though the film’s title gives it away, the sudden and hard pull into Jaws territory makes no sense whatsoever and feels very much like the last-second addition that it is (which makes me wonder what they were gonna call it before tacking this shit on at the end, but whatever). If you’ve got whiplash at this point, rest assured, you’re not alone.

Or maybe you are, because chances are that nobody else is awake at this point. Seriously, unlike other rankly amateur cut-rate CGI abominations like Birdemic, there’s just nothing weird or interesting going on here to maintain your interest until that shark shows up at the end, and by then it’s all far too little, far too late. It seems really strange that a film with pretty young women running around in next to nothing capped at the end with a laughably absurd CG monster could be boring, but that’s exactly what Jaws in Japan is. In fact, it’s downright interminably dull. And while I can certainly forgive (heck, more often than not I love) ultra-low budgets, cheesy FX, and absurd stories, one thing I can’t forgive is dullness. And no matter how many times Hijiri tries for a “do-over” with this thing, he never figures out how to turn it into anything you’re going to give a shit about.