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Monday, 15 February 2016

Monday Night Roundup #13

I've been busy at Apocalypse Later since my last Monday Night Roundup. I caught up with a couple of submissions, for a start.

One is a feature, Death in the Desert (2015), which stars Michael Madsen and the city of Las Vegas in a story based on the real murder of casino heir, Theodore ‘Ted’ Binion. It's a very different approach to a familiar story.

The other is a short, the latest from the Fatal Pictures combination of writer/director Richard Powell, producer Zach Green and star Robert Nolan. I loved Worm and Familiar and was delighted to find an Apocalypse Later quote about the latter on the Kickstarter page for this one. It's Heir (2015), 'a touching story of a father and son' which description has multiple meanings. Yes, this is a really creepy short, aided by the addition of Bill Oberst Jr in sparkling form.
I celebrated a couple of birthdays: Charlotte Rampling's 70th with a review of Nagisa Oshima's thought provoking surrealist feature, Max Mon Amour (1986), and James Spader's 56th with a look back at his last pre-fame film, the interesting thriller about twins, serial killing and an homage to Jack the Ripper, Jack's Back (1988).
I reviewed a couple of short educational films for my Weird Wednesdays project: the American bicycle safety film with monkeys, One Got Fat (1962), which my better half saw in class in first or second grade, and a chilling British take on why not to play on railway lines, The Finishing Line (1977), which was commissioned by British Transport Films and then withdrawn from circulation due to the ensuing controversy.
And I started a new project, in which I remember important people to the world of film on what would have been (or, in two instances, what hopefully will be) their one hundredth birthdays by reviewing one of their most interesting films. The first entry for this project is for the underrated Japanese director, Masaki Kobayashi. I picked a dark drama, The Inheritance (1962).

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Cooties (2015)

Director: Jonathan Miliott & Cary Murnion
Stars: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan and Jorge Garcia
Fifteen minutes into Valentine’s Day and I gave my better half cooties. Well, Cooties. It’s a 2014 comedy horror movie starring Elijah Wood from the Lord of the Rings movies. He looks younger here, even though it’s thirteen years since he first put on those hairy feet for Peter Jackson.

He’s Clint Hadson, a wannabe author who’s writing a horror novel about a possessed boat and a teacher about to substitute for Mrs Kenner at the school he used to attend as a kid: Fort Chicken Elementary, home of the Fighting Roosters. The town is well named, because it’s about to get subjected to a zombie-like outbreak caused by contaminated chicken. The film’s disgusting opening sequence starts off with a Happy Poultry Farms worker wringing the neck of a chicken and progresses all the way through the pink slime manufacturing process to a Fort Chicken Elementary schoolgirl biting into the chicken tender that it became.

That’s pretty much it for the sweep of the story, this hardly being a deep exploration of anything, but it introduces a fair set of characters for us to laugh at or with. Only Hadson and Lucy McCormick, a girl he went to school with and now works as the fourth grade teacher, are remotely normal, though neither really stays there for the whole film either. Well, the obnoxious kids are normal but not in the way we want. Cooper Roth does an amazing job, for instance, as a pissant little kid called Patriot, given to the world by God on 9/11 so he can grow up to be a marine and go kill all those towelheads. No, this isn’t remotely politically correct, thank goodness.
The crossing guard is a druggie who spends most of the film in his van. He’s as high as a kite because he eats all his mushrooms when the 5-O show up in response to the zombie outbreak. ‘Are you on shrooms too?’ he asks the giraffe in the passenger seat. The vice principal is a happy go lucky sort who has bouncy balls for chairs in his office. Or is that the principal’s office, given that he’s only temporarily in charge? We really don’t care. This isn’t about a school, not really. The reason teachers will like this film is because they can live vicariously through the staff bashing in the heads of their annoying students with fire extinguishers and dodgeball equipment. This is wish fulfilment fantasy relief for hassled teachers worldwide.

One staff member has a rape alarm and just loves to tell people why she wears it. She’s a religious freak who hates the state of Illinois because it won’t let her teach creationism or carry a gun in class. There’s Wade, the huge PE teacher who can’t land a single basket in the playground and manages to miss most of the initial massacre because he’s distracted. And there’s Doug, who gets most of the best lines of the film. He’s reading a book called How to Have a Normal Conversation when we first meet him, which is much needed. He’s the staff’s nominal scientist because he had a six inch iron spike lodged in his brain when he was a kid, so he naturally got to know all about that stuff.

Doug is played by Leigh Whannell, in a rather different role to the one we know him best as: the other guy in Saw, which franchise he created. Given that we have notable names like Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill, it’s somewhat odd to find myself focusing on an actor better known as a producer. Then again, Vice-Principal Simms is played by Ian Brennan, the creator of Glee, so maybe it’s a trend. Whannell shows a great sense of comedic timing as Doug, throwing out lines like, ‘Now I’m going to extract the brain’ or ‘I always wanted to have sex with a prostitute who was non-white’ at exactly the right moments. I’ve seen a lot of people who enjoyed Rainn Wilson as Wade, but he mostly left me dry. This movie is all about Doug for me.
The biggest problem the film has is that it forgets what it wants to be. It builds slowly with a focus on character development, as if it’s a drama, but with a neat touch of comedy. The humour grows quickly until we can’t fail to realise that this is very much a comedy first, a drama second and a horror flick a distant third. The first act is engaging, the second act is hilarious and the third act is... well, the third act is mostly just there.

All the invention of the early scenes fades away to become samy samy blah. The character development is either thrown away entirely or leaps forward as if we slept through half an hour and woke up to find out how things had changed. The kids, who are frankly awesome for at least half the film, start to make less and less sense. If this chicken virus destroys their brains, then how come they keep doing smarter things than the teachers they have under siege? The only good thing in the last third of the film is the ramping up of gratuitous violence and, as much fun as that is, it really can’t save the movie.

I applaud the film for being willing to tell such a controversial story in comedic form, casting a bunch of kids who know exactly how to be creepy little bastards and spinning a tale of horror violence out of the juvenile idea of cooties. At one point, a little girl who’s avoided the chicken plague, gives Hadson an imaginary cootie shot and it’s a surprisingly touching moment in a film mostly devoid of them. Oh, and I applaud the idea that the token black kid is the only one to survive. No spoiler there either. You aren’t going to watch this for a story anyway. You’re going to watch it because a bunch of kooky teachers get to bludgeon a bunch of kids to death in increasingly outrageous fashion and we get to laugh while they do it. On that front, it works like a dream. On any other front, it’ll impress and then disappoint, so don’t get too invested.

Action Jackson (1988)

Director: Craig R Baxley
Stars: Carl Weathers, Craig T Nelson, Vanity, Sharon Stone, Thomas F Wilson, Bill Duke, Robert Davi, Jack Thibeau, Roger Aaron Brown and Stan Foster
I can’t say that I’m a particular fan of Denise Matthews, the artist formerly known as Vanity, but given that 2016 in film is currently being defined by obituaries more than releases, I felt I should take the opportunity of her untimely death today to review the movie for which she was nominated for a Razzie as Worst Actress. It turns out to sum up her career rather well.
She first appears on a club stage singing a suggestive song in a suggestive outfit, appropriate because she found fame leading Prince’s girl group, Vanity 6, in hits like Nasty Girl. The number in the band’s name represents the collective number of breasts belonging to the trio and we get to see Vanity’s two relatively soon into her role here. She turns out to be both the mistress of the villain of the piece and a drug addict, shooting up what is presumably heroin. In real life, she became addicted to crack cocaine and overdosed in 1994, nearly dying of complete renal failure. Given three days to live, she was visited by Jesus who told her that he’d let her live if she gave up the persona of Vanity. She did so and survived, turning to the Lord in the process: getting clean, cutting all ties to show business and devoting her life to evangelism. That’s here too, as her character rescues Action Jackson at one point by pretending he’s an evangelist and we get a hilarious scene with Carl Weathers as a pretend preacher man.

Unfortunately she’s clearly not the best of the two up and coming female stars who were willing to get topless for the camera. The other one was Sharon Stone, still seeking stardom at this point, her eighties career going through the usual cycle of extra work (Stardust Memories), a horror movie (Deadly Blessing), wannabe blockbusters (King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel), embarrassing aims for fame (Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol) and action (Cold Steel, Above the Law and this film). How did I not know about Beyond the Stars, though? I should find that one. Total Recall was still two years away and Basic Instinct four, so she’s still at the point where she had to do a shower scene even though she was clearly better than that. She even gets a second topless scene as a corpse and, no, that doesn’t spoil much because she’s surprisingly underused and hardly in the film.
I wanted to mention the ladies first, as inconsequential as they are here, because it’s really a man’s film, a testosterone fuelled eighties action flick with all the component parts we might expect, so we can safely now forget about those ladies.

Of course, there are overblown action scenes and the film naturally opens with one. To the strains of the music of cliché, a man is taken down hard by what looks like the nearest heavy metal band to answer a casting call (one of these hitmen turns out to be the lead singer of Giuffria). Two swing in through the windows while the other two use the door, but they all pose while they blow their target through the gap the glass left to fall many storeys to his flaming death.
There’s also embarrassing music. Beyond Vanity’s songs, which are entirely capable but cheesy eighties R&B, the score is by both Herbie Hancock and Michael Kamen, who between them defined film music in that decade, and there are featured songs by Sister Sledge and the Pointer Sisters. I’m proud to say that by 1988 I was stagediving to Napalm Death so managed to avoid this stuff for the most part.

Perhaps the most successful aspect is the film’s sense of humour. I loved the first calm scene, for example. A young black hood called Albert Smith attempts to steal the purse of a huge black woman, played by a big stuntman in drag for no apparent reason, in the streets of Detroit. The lady doesn’t even let go of the bag and promptly beats him with it until the cops who are driving right next to him when it happens save him and take him downtown. They’re a refreshingly well adjusted multi-cultural pair, who scare the crap out of the kid by telling him stories about a bogeyman cop called Action Jackson, whom young Albert naturally runs into while trying to run out of the precinct, spilling coffee all over his desk. One line from Jackson and he faints. A few scenes later, a mere look through a set of offices is enough to make him faint again. And he shows up later in the film too. I loved this humour, something that modern takes on eighties action cinema, like The Expendables films, only mostly got right.
And of course there’s Carl Weathers. In fact, given that this film sprang out of an idea he had for a new blaxploitation movie while making Predator a year earlier, it features a bunch of his fellow cast members from that film. There’s police captain Bill Duke and drug dealer Sonny Landham who shows up late for a fight scene. I’m used to the blaxploitation of the seventies and hadn’t realised how many regular faces I would recognise here from a decade later.

The story plays fourth fiddle to the action, the humour and the faces, mostly because it’s a stunningly routine sort of story for this sort of film. Jackson is a dedicated cop but he ran up against a powerful man called Peter Dellaplane when he put his son in jail. Allegations of police brutality, which were probably true (‘You nearly tore that boy’s arm off,’ suggests the captain; ‘He had a spare!’ retorts Jackson) lost the cop his lieutenant’s stripes, his gun permit and his marriage. Now he runs into Dellaplane again, because the captain sends him to the Detroit Business League’s Man of the Year Award ceremony, to see if he can deal with Dellamore winning it. Of course it merely begins a plot in which Jackson discovers that his nemesis, an automobile industry executive, is killing off union bosses and so pursues him.

Carl Weathers is fine as Action Jackson, though he remains a little stonefaced at points, as if afraid to act, surprising given that he does fine throughout most of the film. Some of his best work is in early scenes where he pressures important people, like Dellaplane, while knowing that he can’t resort to the violence for which he’s known. His one liners are great and he gets plenty of them. ‘How do you like your ribs?’ he asks one bad guy as he turns a flamethrower on him. His action is fun, even though he doesn’t get to show off his remarkable physique until almost the end of the picture. One car chase in particular is quintessential eighties action flick fodder: chockablock full of outrageous leaps, crashes, explosions, gunfire, destruction and, of course, cheap plot conveniences. I loved it!
I can’t say I loved the film but it’s certainly a lot more enjoyable than it is good. I’d have happily tuned in for the sequel that never came, even if the Germans did pointlessly release 1990’s unrelated Dangerous Passion as Action Jackson 2. This is routine cheesy action comedy with a predictable plot that couldn’t be mistaken as being from any other decade but the eighties. But hey, that’s Craig T Nelson from Coach as the villain of the piece and he gets Sharon Stone for a wife and Vanity for a mistress. Really, that’s all we need to tune in. Carl Weathers as Jericho ‘Action’ Jackson and the whole modern blaxploitation concept is really just icing on the cake.

RIP Denise Matthews, formerly known as Vanity.

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