CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: September, 2012

“Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era” (2011)

 

Roger Ebert said that horror is the only film genre that’s its own star. In regards to mainstream moviegoing, this is basically true; no matter what CW fixtures are headlining, the thrills are what the customers have paid to get. But it’s the hardcore fans, those hunters of all obscure cinema treasures they can find, who help elevate the most unlikely figures to prominence. Screaming in High Heels focuses on three such people, a trio of actresses who reaped the benefits and paid the professional price for becoming synonymous with the kind of movies they can only show their families in edited, twenty-minute chunks.

The time: the early 1980s. The place: the independent film market. The institution of the drive-in is fading fast, forcing budding directors to seek other venues through which they can build careers on making stuff that most definitely won’t be coming to a theater near you. Cue the rise of video, opening the doors for a whole new audience of sleaze-seekers to enjoy the most lurid pictures in the privacy of their own living rooms. This, of course, means wrangling in a new breed of talent that’s not so skittish about appearing nude and running from goofy rubber monstrosities, which is where Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer come in. In everything from Dr. Alien and Evil Toons to Nightmare Sisters and Pumpkinhead 2, the ladies made their names on one schlocky treat after another — a move that would earn them an audience as much as it hindered their careers.

Contrary to its subtitle, Screaming in High Heels isn’t really a chronicle of the “scream queen” mantle throughout the ages. It’s a great idea for a different documentary, considering how Heels rather brazenly rejects the notion that Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis were as worthy of carrying on the torch as its own three subjects. But that’s not to say that Quigley, Stevens, and Bauer were kicking it on Easy Street, as director Jason Paul Collum shows us that acting alongside Eddie Deezen was the least of their worries. Just because Bob American passed on Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, that doesn’t mean there weren’t dozens of conventions to attend and hundreds of snapshots of their own bare breasts to autograph.

Screaming in High Heels is more of a family reunion than a documentary. In addition to the girls, people they worked with (like Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau) pitch in and discuss days of one-week shooting schedules and 1-900 hotlines gone by. Plenty of laughs are also shared, mostly over comparing where the ladies began in their lives (Stevens holds a degree in Marine Biology) versus ending up together in the likes of Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. But they also talk about their inability to find work outside the genre, being so pigeonholed into doing lowbrow bright flicks that some were even briefly driven away from the profession. Still, the overall tone is an affectionate one, and despite the occasional creepy fan and professional setbacks, you get the idea that these gals wouldn’t trade their reign as B-movie queens for the world.

Screaming in High Heels gave me a whole new respect for not only women but everyone involved in the sort of Z-grade horror that, even as I’ve grown more open towards the genre, I’ve mostly avoided. The anecdotes shared by Quigley, Bauer, and Stevens convince you that not only is there a market for their brand of cinema cheese, it’s all part of the same, extended, messed-up family. Screaming in High Heels proves that it takes a tough cookie to make a movie that gets you to toss your cookies.

“1969” (1988)

What’s a Blog-a-Thon? This blog-a-thon is a challenge; its participants have chosen films the other has not seen to watch and review.

September Blog-a-Thon criteria? Hidden ’80s gems.

Why did Marcey choose this for A.J.? “In my youth, I used to watch a lot of Robert Downey Jr. and Kiefer Sutherland. 1969 is an almost forgotten title from the both of them, and I am not sure why. It’s a good film, and I want more people to discover it or re-discover it. It is a film about many things, with the setting a core piece. It has a great cast, who all do a great job. It is worthwhile, and I hope it doesn’t remain an obscure title; it doesn’t deserve to be.”

And now…A.J.’s review…

Every decade seems to go through a phase of waxing nostalgic about what happened twenty years before it. In the Roaring 2010s, we’re seeing a few traces of ’80s love hanging around, but the ’90s are waiting in the wings, with their Pog collections and Surge bottles at the ready. But as the toys and cartoons of my youth are transformed into pitiful Hollywood tentpoles, 1969 is busy making an effort to relate its era’s great social upheaval to viewers on a relatively small scale. It’s not a very big movie in its scope, preferring an intimate storyline with a few characters over a sweeping chronicle of the many changes that struck America. Even with these modest goals, 1969 isn’t a huge success, but it was made in earnest and keeps any snarky, “I told you so” bits of commentary to a minimum.

Ralph (Robert Downey Jr.) and Scott (Kiefer Sutherland) are lifelong friends who couldn’t be anymore different. Scott is an idealist with a wide-eyed approach to what the world has in store, while Ralph is a reckless rogue cracking wise and experimenting with any narcotics he can get his hands on. But as the pals enter 1969 as college students with their whole lives before them, the change that’s been simmering all across the nation finally pierces their sheltered lives. The boys start to question their country’s escalating role in the Vietnam War, a cause Ralph’s sister Beth (Winona Ryder) gets behind as she develops feelings for Scott. But their clashing personalities make it inevitable that the guys are driven down different paths, leaving Scott to choose between bailing on his loved ones or risking his own future to stay and fight for theirs.

For as much as 1969 gets right about making a period drama, it violates a good deal of the “don’ts” as well. Debuting as a writer/director, On Golden Pond scribe Ernest Thompson gives us a balanced depiction of his story’s setting. He has some affection for the good old days, but he’s well aware of how reality was changing, such as when Scott’s war vet father (Bruce Dern) berates him for his opposition to serving in Vietnam. But in not letting the times overshadow the characters too much, Thompson ends up downplaying the era’s presence to a series of callbacks and events mentioned in passing. Hey, the moon landing’s on TV! Must be the ’60s! Lookee here, a nudist camp! There sure were a lot of those in the ’60s, huh?

My apologies for the smarm, but it’s during moments like these that I wished 1969 had painted itself over a broader canvas. It’s a perfectly decent buddy drama, driven by solid performances from Downey and Sutherland (even if the former is basically playing himself), but in the grand scheme of things, not much happens. Their characters go through the expected arcs, subplots are resolved just like you think they will (although some — like the strained marriage of Scott’s parents — go nowhere altogether), and the film ends with a plea for peace aimed at the Cold War dwellers of the ’80s. But Thompson’s fickle ability to ground us in the setting gradually weakens other aspects of the plot. The scene of Scott leading his hometown in protest near the end isn’t a culmination of the times being reflected so much as it’s just a place to stop at and roll the credits.

1969 is alright stuff, possessing the desire to make a difference even though it doesn’t apply the same passion to its execution. If anything, it’s commendable for not being overtly cynical, passing on rubbing our faces in past mistakes in favor of showing us that if we fought the good fight at one time, we can still fight today. Familiar and basic though it may be, I’d buy 1969‘s potential to inspire more than the flicks that wear their piousness on their sleeves.

(Be sure to read Marcey’s review of my recommendation, Shock Treatment, at her website, SuperMarcey.com!)

“The Moth Diaries” (2011)

In The Moth Diaries, an English teacher mentions that the vampire story has three basic ingredients: sex, blood, and death. He’s not too far off the mark; they all work as extremely versatile metaphors, their use depending on (in the case of film) the particular story and vision of a director’s choosing. This is why Vampyr is a chilling “good vs. evil” parable with an abiding interest in the paranormal, and why Twilight is…Twilight. Unfortunately, the Stephenie Meyer style is what The Moth Diaries‘ marketing team has run with, which does no justice to the deep impact it strives to make. But at the same time, filmmaker Mary Harron doesn’t quite stick the landing, thanks to her habit of skewing wispy way too often and assuming her viewers have a first-grader’s ability to decode symbolism.

Becca (Sarah Bolger) is off for another year of hitting books and sneaking joints at the all-girls Brangwyn School. While still shaken from her father’s recent suicide, Becca is fortunate enough to have the company of her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon) to help ease the pain. But it seems as if Brangwyn’s latest arrival has taken an interest in Lucy that exceeds wanting some more girl time. Spooky newcomer Ernessa (Lily Cole) is cozying up awfully close to Lucy, with only Becca being able to see the deliberate wedge being driven between her and her BFF. Everyone else thinks she’s whipping herself into a jealous frenzy, but Becca knows better, well aware that confronting her own inner demons is the only way to stop Ernessa from completely draining poor Lucy of her humanity.

Admittedly, The Moth Diaries was only on my radar due to the “lesbian vampire” label hoisted on it, which Harron does an admirable job of waving off. In other words, it ain’t Daughters of Darkness Redux, for the sex angle is conveyed with subtlety, as is the precise nature of Ernessa’s supernatural side. To the best of my recollection, the V-bomb is rarely dropped (if at all), freeing our protagonist to worry about her pal’s soul facing damnation without having a lot of cliched motions to trudge through. This is a fairly heavy story, but it’s handled with maturity, and barring a couple flat performances, the mostly young cast shines often enough to give credence to its riskier elements.

While I appreciate that Harron (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) put on her game face here, a little lightening-up could have helped The Moth Diaries achieve a more well-rounded feeling. But nope, this is a Serious Movie™, which means humor is scarce, people staring off into space is the norm, and, worst of all, all symbolism will have the hell spelled out of it. The movie draws parallels between Ernessa sucking away Lucy’s life and the damaging effects Becca’s inability to move on from her dad’s death has on her relationships, but they’re so forced and constantly drudged up, you tune out fast. All things considered, Becca seems fairly well-adjusted before the weird-eyed kid moves in, and no amount of mopey voiceovers can convince us that she’s enduring some great, psychologically-rattling crisis.

I didn’t queue up The Moth Diaries expecting a bloodbath for the ages, and I dig that it’s a female-driven horror film that sidesteps virtually all of the exploitative trappings we’ve come to anticipate. But when the curtain fell on this morose saga, the ratio of characters just looking sad to the insight gleaned from their fragile psyches favored the former to an irksome degree. From the odd hint of the red stuff to Becca’s mental instability, what The Moth Diaries offers does little to draw you in or spook you out.

“Resident Evil: Damnation” (2012)

Even casual observers of the video game trade can tell that the term “survival horror” doesn’t cut much these days. What’s happening there is the same trend that horror cinema likes to follow, in which the dread of not knowing exactly what is making that horrible noise around the corner is replaced by shoving the audience right into said ghoul’s ghastly kisser. The “Resident Evil” series has always been regarded as a survival horror mainstay, but while folks have criticized Paul W.S. Anderson’s movies for taking too many liberties with the games, I don’t think the publishers are doing that much better. This is all just going off the Capcom-produced and CG-animated title Resident Evil: Damnation, wherein a lot of monsters and buildings are blow’d up real good but not a twinge of fright or concern for the characters’ safety is ever stirred.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Eastern Slav Republic has risen to take its place on the world stage. The fledgling country is still plagued by civil war, pitting peasants against a new government that’s eager to pillage their land for natural resources. But when word gets out that genetically-engineered creatures are being used to do someone’s dirty work, in comes grizzled operative Leon Kennedy (voice of Matthew Mercer) to get to the bottom of things. Hordes of unspeakable beasties and zombified locals show up to greet Leon, but there’s still more to the story, one complicated by the machinations of both the Republic’s president (voice of Wendee Lee) and enigmatic spy Ada Wong (voice of Courtenay Taylor).

Not owning a gaming console has left me stranded in a lot of conversations shared amongst my nerdy amigos (don’t worry, I get them back with my Streets of Fire references). Still, I’m savvy enough to gather that bad dialogue and monotone voice acting are as much a part of the “Resident Evil” charm as high-tailing it from the undead. But put to film in Damnation, all they contribute to is taking you out of the scant suspenseful moments the thing can claim. Between this and 2008’s Degeneration, it seems as if Capcom wants to spearhead its own line of Resident Evil films that cater to fans of the games more than Anderson’s blockbusters have. It ain’t a bad mission statement, but the follow-through that is Damnation turns out to be a drab horror show that still manages to confound you with a story no more complex than “hunk shoots at walking meat slabs.”

A big reason why Damnation fails to raise ye olde blood pressure is that its protagonist is one of the biggest dullards to ever choose a Chris Gaines look. The only time we really feel anything for Leon is when he rattles off a smarmy quip about missing breakfast, since he spends about half the movie watching everybody else duke it out with each other. He’s less “hero” and more “prop with a rocket launcher,” and the fact that 30-year-old Mercer voices Leon like he’s added a few decades is distracting when he finally gets in on the action. There’s some kinda interesting stuff going on with the plot (including the idea that the monsters aren’t with the bad guys), but the prolonged action sequences and boring characters do a real number on the pacing. Plus, there’s the uneven animation, which is responsible for as many spooky bunkers and bloodthirsty behemoths as it is for some of the poorest lip-syncing this side of a Godzilla dub.

Resident Evil: Damnation is more grounded and a lot less loopy than its live-action counterparts, which is both good and bad. You aren’t shaking your head in disbelief at the latest moronic plot twist you’re expected to swallow, but the inert shootouts and showdowns you get in return don’t really engage you either. While Damnation isn’t a total chore, it’s sad when the best thing I can say about it is that it at least doesn’t have Mike Epps.

“Dr. Who and the Daleks” (1965)

 

“Doctor Who” is a gargantuan force of geek culture that I’m not even sure I want to try to breach. One episode is all I’ve been convinced to watch thus far (sorry, Elise), and with the show’s history stretching back for so long, finding a good point to jump in is rather intimidating. Thus, I figured the 1965 feature Dr. Who and the Daleks would be as safe an introduction as possible, what with it being a stand-alone sci-fi outing with virtually no connection to its source program whatsoever. From what I gather, it’s not an embarrassment on as grand a scale as the Star Wars Holiday Special, but fans largely don’t like to talk about it, and as a man who’s seen many a corny genre spectacle in his time, this film is pretty unremarkable stuff.

Widely known otherwise as an alien visitor, Dr. Who and the Daleks recasts its title character as a kooky old human inventor, the Emmett Brown of his era. Peter Cushing plays the good doctor, who’s just whipped up his time- and space-hopping machine, the TARDIS, right in his back yard. But five minutes barely pass before a goof-up sends Who, his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey), and Barbara’s beau Ian (Roy Castle) careening across the cosmos. The gang ends up on a seemingly-barren planet, populated with just two races: pacifist models with He-Man hairdos, and the Daleks, mutated creatures who ride around in armored golf carts. The Daleks would love nothing more than to have the planet to themselves, and if they hope to see home again, Who and his companions must stop the floor scrubbers of doom at any cost.

As I mentioned before, my understanding of the Who-niverse is remedial at best, so you won’t hear any complaints about Dr. Who and the Daleks not sticking to canon, continuity, or what have you. But speaking as an aficionado of sci-fi cheese in general, the film can be almost unforgivably dull at times, which clashes with its bright visual spread and initially plucky spirit. For its first third, Dr. Who and the Daleks had me wrapped up in its can-do attitude, with Cushing’s character cheerfully accepting the prospect of exploring strange new worlds. The interior of the TARDIS is a rat’s nest of gadgets and gizmos, and the Daleks’ home base is a collage of flashing lights that’d get Katy Perry weeping. But soon after the plot starts taking over, that awe-inspiring sense of wonder and discovery fades fast, leaving you with a good 45 minutes of clanging and electronic belching before the credits finally pull the plug.

Dr. Who and the Daleks was meant to occupy a younger audience than production house Amicus was used to, but even that doesn’t excuse how the thin story is often stretched to near-transparency. Essentially, this is H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” with Doctor Who caught in a battle between peace-loving and war-hungry beings. The only difference is that they’re on another planet, but neither the characters or the stakes are developed enough for the conflict to get a rise from us. Pleasant as Cushing’s performance is, the Doctor can be a real idiot (it’s his fib that lands his family in danger to begin with), as are the facepalm-inducingly naive peaceniks he befriends. As for the Daleks, their design and concept is cool and all, but two straight minutes of their grating mechanical speech is all it took to have me dreading the villains for entirely different reasons. The supporting actors are okay, though Castle’s blundering Ian could’ve really eased up on the zany.

Colorful, boring, and completely harmless, Dr. Who and the Daleks is far from the basement-dwelling bastard child of the “Doctor Who” franchise. On the other hand, it’s not a great place to turn to for newcomers like myself who’re wondering what the big honking deal is with this series. I’m sure the show has a lot more enthusiasm regarding the fantastic, just as you can assume that Dr. Who and the Daleks isn’t a sterling example of what British science fiction cinema’s imagination can do.

“Gymkata” (1985)

What’s a Blog-a-Thon? This blog-a-thon is a challenge; its participants have chosen films the other has not seen to watch and review.

September Blog-a-Thon criteria? Hidden ’80s gems.

Why did Marcey choose this for A.J.? Gymkata is not exactly what one may call a good film; in fact, it is a prime example of why certain things shouldn’t be done. It is an interesting experiment in that way and a film that I do believe is worth watching. With so much wrong in Gymkata, it does remain an entertaining film, with so many laughs (a lot not exactly intentional) and very bizarre moments. This is recommended viewing and a crime that until now A.J. hasn’t seen!”

And now…A.J.’s review…

The ’80s didn’t have a monopoly on novelty movies, but there sure was a lot of goofy shit promoting the fad of the week. Thrashin’ fed on the skateboarding craze, Breakin’ featured popping and locking, and Rad capitalized on kids’ love of BMX dance numbers (what, you’ve never been?). As for whatever the hell Gymkata is supposed to be, an antidote to the overtly-macho action hero model of the time is what I assume the filmmakers had in mind. It was a novel and more graceful alternative to the screen’s roided-up musclemen, and for that, I have to give the flick some credit. But the premise is executed with about as many metric tons of cheese as you’d expect, sentencing Gymkata to life as a darling of the cult movie circuit and the butt of countless “MST3K” jokes.

Parmistan is what would happen if you let the Rennaisance Festival get too long and too violent. The small mountain nation is the perfect spot for the U.S. to install a secret base and warn home in case of an impending Russkie attack, but there’s one catch. All outsiders have to participate in a series of physical challenges that mostly result in death, but should a winner emerge, the grand prize is the granting of any request of their choosing. Enter Jonathan Cabot (Olympic medalist Kurt Thomas), a skilled gymnast whom Uncle Sam recruits to enter the contest in the name of establishing the aforementioned base. But Jonathan faces trouble not just from his fellow competitors but also Zamir (Richard Norton), a scheming revolutionary who’ll kill any back-flipping do-gooders standing between him and taking over Parmistan.

Gymkata‘s downfall is that it doesn’t have a damned clue of what it wants to be. There’s a kitchen sink quality to the story, which chucks in elements of James Bond, Bruce Lee, medieval fantasy, and The Most Dangerous Game with virtually no discipline. It’s like watching the indecisive bonehead in front of you at Subway pondering what toppings he should choose for 90 minutes, and you don’t know whether to laugh at the guy or get mad that you’re late for work. Gymkata was not made by stupid people (director Robert Clouse helmed a little ditty called Enter the Dragon), but in their quest to spice up martial arts cinema with something very different, the creative team ended up with a product that’s only truly entertaining the more it’s mocked.

The name Gymkata comes from the hybrid of gymnastics and fighting talents Jonathan must put to use, and it’s the sequences designed to highlight these moves that are particularly amusing. Convenient tools with which our hero can dismount and reverse planche his way to victory are all over the place; one village of criminally-insane residents was even nice enough to include a pommel horse for Jonathan to twirl on while he kicks their asses. As ridiculous as these scenarios are (especially in a film that likes to blitz exposition right past you), I have to admit that they’re made with a certain energy that draws you in despite the loony concept. You don’t care anymore about Jonathan’s romance with a hottie princess, the search for his missing father, or any of the other dozen subplots the film eventually forgets, but when it’s one dude versus a town full o’ crazies, you wanna see how he gets out of it.

Gymkata is dumb, poorly-acted, all over the map…and yeah, it’s kind of entertaining. It’s terrible, but it moves fast, so whenever a dopey performance or plot convenience rolls around, it’s never for long. I’m thankful that the crimefighting gymnast craze never took off, but for what it’s worth, Gymkata does what it does and sends you off with a good laugh.

(Be sure to read Marcey’s review of my recommendation, Things Change, at her website, SuperMarcey.com!)

“The Do-Deca-Pentathlon” (2012)

 

As I write this, Mark and Jay Duplass are probably shooting their next movie, scripting another, and figuring out the catering for the one after that. In short, they’ve made a lot of films in the past couple years, most of which I haven’t seen (though Jeff, Who Lives at Home was solid), but there’s still something to admire about an output like theirs. The brothers have been called heralds of the mumblecore comedy, a fairly appropriate label after witnessing the deadpan manner in which their latest picture, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, assembles its dialogue. Like Jeff, this too concerns childish grudges still held by two adult men, though with a screenplay that doesn’t test how much schmaltz and slacker wisdom you can tolerate in one sitting, its message about growing the hell up already comes through much more naturally.

Ever since a dark day in 1990, siblings Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis) have barely spoken to each other. It was the day on which the Do-Deca-Pentathlon — their own personal, 25-event competition to crown the better brother — was interrupted before the victor could be declared. Years later, resentment has driven them their separate ways, with Mark becoming a family man and Jeremy a pseudo-slacker who gets by on his poker winnings. But when the whole clan ends up getting together for Mark’s birthday, Jeremy’s plenty happy to bring up the unfinished Do-Deca, prodding his brother into a new tournament that may open some new wounds instead of addressing the ones it’s supposed to mend.

My gag reflex starts itching whenever Hollywood cranks out another sibling rivalry farce into theaters. These preach all about brotherhood, togetherness, and other Hallmark hooey, but their morals hardly seem sincere when tacked on after 90 minutes of unbearable pratfalls and slapstick. Thus, I don’t think the average schmoe who sang the praises of Jack and Jill will be yukking it up too much with The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. It’s a comedy in the sense that it’s obvious from the get-go that Jeremy and Mark are nimrods for taking a childhood game way too seriously. Even the events themselves are nothing elaborate, just particularly heated rounds of skeeball, laser tag, arm wrestling, and the like. But the rift the competition causes presently just as when they were kids remains in focus, so while you won’t bust a gut watching the guys out-jog one another, you’re always aware that they really have some issues to work out.

At a darned slim 76 minutes, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon mercifully spares us and the characters a prolonged process of realizing that being an emotionally-stunted man-child is a bad thing. But the Duplasses never look down on their leads, acknowledging that they’re better off letting the past alone but sympathizing with what drives them to do the opposite anyway. Kelly and Zissis play off of each other well, and, most importantly, make a convincing pair of brothers with plenty of shared jealousy to be relieved. Mark and Jeremy’s latest spat shows a good deal about their character, just as Mark’s wife (Jennifer Lafleur) comes across as a nagging spouse at first but gradually reveals valid concerns for wanting them to stop the Do-Deca. All of this is accomplished with nary a contrived moment on behalf of the Duplasses, who earn your interest and emotional investment without having to have the story repeatedly demand it.

So wry is the humor in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, you wouldn’t be blamed for not laughing that much or picking up its subtleties on your initial viewing. But it has its share of smirks, and it’s nice to see a comedy that doesn’t celebrate being an obnoxious chunkhead with a bad case of arrested development. I’m not that tempted to delve further into the Duplass’ filmography, but after this production, I’ll keep them in mind the next time I have a hankering for a nice, muted indie flick.

“Rough Magic” (1995)

 

Strangely enough, I blame my affinity for stuff from the ’40s and ’50s on growing up in the ’90s. I happily rode the nostalgia wave that got me into music’s neo-swing movement, entertained me with cinematic treats like Dick Tracy, and made Nick at Nite as big a part of my TV diet as “Power Rangers.” The really clever ones married the period settings with sharp modern hindsight, which Rough Magic sets forth to do but fumbles en route to the altar. For a film with a very clear preference for the mystifying nature of the unknown over the cold logic of science, little of its intended awe comes through, emerging in its stead random patches of weirdness that clash with the more conventional storytelling at work.

In post-WWII Los Angeles, things are looking up for magician’s assistant Myra Shumway (Bridget Fonda). In addition to a big upcoming job in Las Vegas, she’s set to marry a rising politico (D.W. Moffett), in a move that all but guarantees him a Senate seat. But Myra’s boss (Kenneth Mars) has other plans, engineering a scenario that results in him being shot by the nogoodnik fiance, freeing Myra to develop her talents further with a shaman in Mexico. Not to let a loose end in fishnets stand between him and his path to the White House, the fiance hires burnt-out investigator Alex Ross (Russell Crowe) to track her down. But as it turns out, south of the border is where the true magic thrives, as Myra comes to learn that she possesses powers far beyond pulling off a mean card trick.

The film that immediately sprung to mind while watching Rough Magic was Cast a Deadly Spell, in which the usual stock characters of a private eye thriller casually performed supernatural feats on a daily basis. It’s not totally fair to compare the two, since the latter revolves around folks who’ve long since accepted magic into their lives, while the former’s heroine is coming to terms with its actual existence. But it still stands that even with zombies, werewolves, and Lovecraftian beasties running around, Cast a Deadly Spell displayed a fascination with its own world that drew your attention to the plot as much as to the weird window dressing. Not so much with Rough Magic, where the reaction to women pooping out eggs and lecherous gas station attendants being turned into sausages is less like “Cool!” and more like “Huh?!”

Rough Magic is very upfront with what it wants to say. It draws a clear parallel between feminism and the pursuit of a spiritual connection, which frequently finds itself at odds with a scientific/chauvinistic mindset driven solely by reason. In effect, Rough Magic is about Myra breaking away from her male influences and taking control of her destiny, which is just fine. I even liked how Crowe’s gumshoe is no fan of technology himself, having seen what the atomic bomb can do and retreating to a simple life that leaves him open to being turned onto what Myra discovers about herself. But the devil is in the details, and Rough Magic‘s illusions are at their weakest when the specifics are held up to scrutiny. The period decor rings too false, the performers (save for Mars) rarely feel comfortable delivering their dialogue, and, as previously mentioned, the awkward instances of magic we get distance us from the story rather than reel us in.

If Rough Magic accomplishes anything, it’s 1) making Cast a Deadly Spell look that much better (seriously, seek out that nutty flick), and 2) showing us that Russell Crowe got better at handling hard-boiled dialogue. Noble as its aims are, not enough balance is struck between the traditional and the out-of-this-world to make it all gel. Bridget Fonda sure can work a pair of stockings, but Rough Magic doesn’t give you much else to do for the other 102 minutes.

“The Godfather of Green Bay” (2005)

 

Maybe Wisconsin really is as weird as the movie industry seems to think. Maybe living in the madness for 27 years has blinded me to the notion that, to the outside world, our deer hunting and Packer chanting are real knee-slappers. Or it could just mean that they’ve run out of good jokes to tell, which happens to independently-produced The Godfather of Green Bay before its protagonist even sets foot in Ed Gein’s home state. The most novel twist it brings to the table is not mentioning snow (that’s right, Wisconsin isn’t a perpetually-frozen wasteland), though there are other stereotypes and cheap laughs that more than make up for it.

Writer/director Pete Schwaba plays Joe Keegan, a Chicago native who’s been on the stand-up comedy circuit for 15 years. Unfortunately, all he has to show for it are piles of empty whiskey bottles left in his wake and bruises left on his face by an unruly heckler. All Joe wants is a little validation for his hard work, and his chance comes in the form of a trip to the teensy burg of Pine Lake, Wisconsin. It’s at a local bar that Joe’s prop comic buddy (Lance Barber) says that a scout for “The Tonight Show” stops by every year, so the guys waste no time in high-tailing it up north. But as Joe awaits the night of his big gig, he reconnects with a sweetie (Lauren Holly) from his past…who just so happens to be the object of affection for a drug dealer (Tony Goldwyn) with a bad temper and even worse mullet.

The Godfather of Green Bay is a mixture of moments that try too hard and moments that don’t try, period. It’s as if it keeps remembering how formulaic it is and goes almost cringingly overboard trying to make itself stand out. If you’ve seen Garden State, Elizabethtown, or any film so brave as to depict the wrenching struggle of being a thirtysomething white male, then you know where The Godfather of Green Bay is heading. Schwaba does create a more casual atmosphere that doesn’t come across as whiny or self-absorbed as those other titles, and this flick’s equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl actually comes across like a human being. Still, Joe’s search for a bit of recognition falls flat, what with no sense of urgency supporting it and having to vie for attention with peripheral characters bent on showing you just how goddamned colorful they are.

Feeling every bit the homegrown production that it probably was, The Godfather of Green Bay feels completely out-of-place whenever it decides to work blue. It’s pretty liberal with the cursing, copping an edgy attitude when it should be using the warm heart it knows it has to expand on its repertoire of Wisconsin gags. Save for Thomas “Jim Dangle” Lennon’s role as a loudmouthed comic wannabe, nothing really strikes a humorous chord here. Schwaba and Holly share some nice scenes together, but with a script that doesn’t give them terribly much to do, you’re rarely laughing when they land in a pickle or showing concern when they’re in danger. Lord knows that Goldwyn’s Big Jake Norquist (the eponymous, self-proclaimed kingpin of eastern Wisconsin) isn’t inducing any fear or chuckles with his often-indecipherable accent and penchant for the Macarena that gets more painful every time it’s brought up.

The Godfather of Green Bay never aspires to be more than an innocent little flick about following your dreams, and that this message does come through in spite of all the creaky wisecracks says something about Schwaba’s talents. It means well, and while it’s an ultimately dull viewing experience, I can’t say I honestly hated anything about it. But if you’re like me — waiting for the definitive Wisconsin-based movie to come a-calling — you won’t find much in The Godfather of Green Bay to boast about.

“Suspect” (1987)

What’s a Blog-a-Thon? This blog-a-thon is a challenge; its participants have chosen other films the other has not seen to watch and review.

September Blog-a-Thon criteria? Hidden ’80s gems.

Why did Marcey choose this for A.J.?“I picked out this film for A.J., again, as it fits the criteria we set for this blog-a-thon. It is a forgotten-about ’80s film, and even though it has been a few years since I’ve seen it, it has stuck with me. I thought it had an intriguing story, one that kept me watching and interested throughout. I actually really liked Cher in this; it was a performance that she managed to disappear into. Dennis Quaid and Liam Neeson are also rather memorable, and in my opinion, this is certainly worth a look.”

And now…A.J.’s review…

For as long as I’ve been conscious of Cher in movies, her time has largely been spent playing Cher — literally and figuratively. These days, I’m not sure what’s been holding her back from being as adventurous an actress as she was in the ’80s, but it’s certainly not a lack of talent; she didn’t win an Oscar for her autotuning prowess. Suspect may appear to be just an average legal pulsepounder (which it kinda is), but in terms of a performer’s own persona transcending their given role, Cher does a bang-up job. You don’t see her in Suspect as the camped-up divabot she’s become lately, which allows you to enjoy the film more so and even look past its occasional narrative missteps.

Christmas has come to Washington, D.C., and it’s brought with it two horrible deaths. First a Supreme Court justice commits suicide, and not long after, his secretary is found with her throat cut. Homeless deaf-mute Carl Wayne Anderson (Liam Neeson) is quickly fingered for the murder in what seems like an open-and-shut case that’s assigned to long-suffering public defender Kathleen Riley (Cher). However, the deeper she digs into Carl’s fragile psyche, the more Kathleen is convinced that there’s more to the crime than meets the eye — a sentiment shared by Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid). A smooth-talking lobbyist stuck with jury duty, Eddie covertly teams up with Kathleen to uncover any evidence that might spare Carl, evading not only the true perpetrators but a judge (John Mahoney) who’s not afraid to disbar her in a heartbeat.

For a long time, I lumped Suspect in with the likes of Music Box, Class Action, and other courtroom dramas with a female protagonist from that time. To be honest, they all felt like the same movie on the surface, so I never paid them much mind, but in the case of Suspect at least, I apologize for passing judgment. The movie sure hedges its bets in wanting to come across as socially-upstanding as possible, speaking on behalf of the hearing impaired, the vocally deficient, and the forgotten man. Fortunately, Suspect doesn’t cram its values too hardly in your face, so it can concentrate on being an engaging — if not wholly sound — legal potboiler. A big help is the added twist of Cher and Quaid’s characters having to work together outside of the courtroom without getting caught; one particularly tense sequence has Mahoney’s judge nearly catching them hunting evidence in a law library.

Then again, this angle doesn’t always work in Suspect‘s favor, as the “whodunit” aspect of the plot doesn’t always get the focus it needs. So little time is given to tracking down what may or may not be the real killer, you almost forget about it until Kathleen starts being stalked in darkly-lit corridors and basically pulls the big revelation out of her heinder at the end. But none of these are deal-breakers, and Suspect gets along very well in the end. The story moves fast and is given an authentic setting, and the ensemble cast is more than competent at getting us invested in the proceedings. Cher is terrific as the world-weary but hopeful Kathleen, Quaid is all charm and million-dollar smiles, and in a tough role that could’ve easily been pandering and sappy, Neeson is great at emphasizing Carl’s more sad and haunting aspects.

Suspect is about on par with the best John Grisham adaptations, though without having to be as showy or bombastic. It’s simplistic, but it works, doing enough to earn your interest while not getting too loopy with the plot twists. Suspect is a neat thriller that, like my good pal Marcey said, is definitely worth checking out sometime.

(Be sure to read Marcey’s review of my recommendation, Swimming to Cambodia, at her website, SuperMarcey.com!)