BREAKAWAY (1996) is another off-brand VHS-only b-movie of a type I like: clunky and obvious, but keeps it moving enough to be fun and allow me to appreciate the bits of personality. It’s not to be confused with the BREAKAWAY that stars Dean Cain or the one in my head about a breakdancer recruited to be an international spy during the Cold War. This is the one that stars Teri Thompson, who other than this and MARRIED PEOPLE, SINGLE SEX mostly had parts like “Murder Victim” in DARK AVENGER and “Restaurant Woman #2” in ALMOST DEAD and “Dildo Girl (uncredited)” in SORORITY BOYS before creating a Youtube series understandably titled “Hollywood Is Hard.” Here, though, she comes off as a star, overshadowing the other unfamiliar faces until Joe Estevez turns up as a hitman who becomes the main antagonist for a while.
Oh yeah, and “introducing Tonya Harding as Gina.” TONYA & NANCY: THE INSIDE STORY mentioned that the infamous Olympian wanted to start acting, maybe on a soap opera or something. This is what became of that aspiration. (Her only other acting credit is a 2003 film called THE PRIZE FIGHTER.) Here she plays a restaurant manager who the main character’s bombmaker boyfriend is cheating with. (read the rest of this shit…)
When I moved a few months ago I found a box of VHS tapes deep in my closet, and on one of them had been taped the 1994 NBC Movie of the Week TONYA & NANCY: THE INSIDE STORY. I offer no explanation except that Elm Street’s own Nancy, Heather Langenkamp, plays Kerrigan. Anyway, I set it aside to watch after I, TONYA.
And when I did I was surprised to find how much the two biopics, made 23 years apart, have in common. Of course they hit many of the same famous moments and details, but also they both seem very self conscious about seeming exploitative and therefore attempt to elevate the material with a playful style involving mock interviews and contradictory viewpoints. Some of the scenes, like Tonya being chased by her stepbrother, her father leaving or the first time she meets Jeff Gillooly have weirdly similar staging. Both movies flash forward to Nancy screaming “Why?” early on and then take their time showing Harding’s life leading up to the attack (though this one does have scenes just about Kerrigan).
Both movies have a similar view of Tonya: her dad taught her boy things (shooting guns, shooting pool, fixing engines), her mom abused her, her step brother abused her, her husband abused her, she got swept up and either didn’t know or didn’t fully understand what these guys were doing on her behalf. Would you believe that both movies have a part where the fourth wall is broken to directly accuse the viewer of contributing to the abuse and exploitation of Tonya Harding? In this one it doesn’t come from the actor playing Harding, it comes from the actor playing the screenwriter of the TV movie! (read the rest of this shit…)
From the naming convention that brought you I, ROBOT and I, FRANKENSTEIN comes I, TONYA. I, Vern, was concerned about this one from the second the production company logos started. Obviously I’m all for movies kicking off with a blast of funk, but I couldn’t see how such music represented Tonya Harding, the scandal-scarred bad girl of Olympic figure skating, icon of early ’90s teased bangs, discussed in this movie as going to a Richard Marx concert, disparaged for her allegedly low class music choices in competitions (“Sleeping Bag” by ZZ Top), declaring herself a redneck, marrying a white man who wears a turtleneck under a cardigan.
Okay, they got a Chicago song on there, I buy that. But Violent Femmes? Siouxsie and the Banshees covering Iggy Pop? And yes, there’s a prominent use of “Spirit in the Sky.” All movies that aspire to hipness have “Spirit in the Sky.”
Throughout the movie these wall-to-wall needle drops never said to me “This is the soul of Tonya Harding,” but instead “Guys, this is like BOOGIE NIGHTS! This is like GOODFELLAS! Right Guys? It’s like Scorsese!” An Entertainment Weekly interview with music supervisor Susan Jacobs confirms that she sees it as “the soundtrack of AMERICAN HUSTLE or a Scorsese film.” She says they chose ’70s and early ’80s music because “there’s a warmth to the ’70s that does not exist to the ’80s and ’90s.” Sorry Richard Marx.
It’s a small thing. Most people shouldn’t care. But it felt false to me, and kept me a little skeptical. (read the rest of this shit…)
Speaking of Florida projects, here’s one where three guys with very little in common set out on a small fishing boat to try to snatch some gold abandoned in Cuba. FLORIDA STRAITS (1986) is a fun little adventure from GET CARTER and I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD director Mike Hodges.
Chalk another one up to video store browsing. I had never heard of this when the flashy painted art on the tape cover caught my eye. When I noticed who the director was and that Fred Ward was in the cast I decided to give it a shot. Apparently it was made for HBO, but it seems like a theatrical release (and was in many countries). I was thinking maybe it would be an attempt to cash in on Miami Vice. Instead, the way the setup unfolds in a series of compelling, non-expository scenes reminded me of the excellent Billy Dee Williams slow burn spy-revenge movie HIT!, and this is probly my best only-on-VHS discovery since that one (which has since been released on Blu-Ray and DVD). As of this writing, FLORIDA STRAITS doesn’t even have any external review links on IMDb, which is very rare and always something I will brag about. (read the rest of this shit…)
I didn’t know much more going into THE FLORIDA PROJECT than that some people said it was great, that it was something about Florida and kids and that Willem Dafoe would show up at some point. No idea what it was about, just open for something interesting. That was a good strategy. But this is a review, so I sort of gotta tell you more. Heads up.
Turns out it’s about kids around six years old or so living in tacky tourist motels near Orlando. In their world, most buildings are painted bright pink or purple or shaped like a giant orange or ice cream cone or wizard. The title comes from what Disney World was called during the development stages, but of course it’s a double meaning here because these kids are basically living in the projects. Their parents are young, single, unable to be with them during the day because of work, or because they are inattentive.
We first meet Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and friends doing what they will do for most of the movie: run around giggling and raising holy hell. In that opening scene their current interest is spitting over a ledge onto a parked car whose owner Gloria (Sandy Kane), they soon discover, is smoking nearby, so she runs after them. They call her names and aren’t scared and are lectured for having “too much fun” after she tracks them to where they live and guilts Moonee’s mother into dragging them out to clean off the windshield with paper towels. In the process Moonee becomes friends with Gloria’s granddaughter Jancey (Valeria Cotto). (read the rest of this shit…)
Lucky McKee is a director who’s been on the radar of horror fans for about fifteen years, since he broke onto the scene with MAY. His second one THE WOODS was only okay from what I remember, but I liked his Jack Ketchum adaptation RED. He probly doesn’t share my affection for it – he was fired for publicly unexplained reasons and a different director finished it – but his Ketchum assocation continued when he produced the adaptation THE LOST and actually co-wrote THE WOMAN with the author, based on one of his OFFSPRING characters. I think THE WOMAN is McKee’s best and most interesting by far, but in the ensuing six years he’s only done a couple silly things (ALL CHEERLEADERS MUST DIE and a segment of TALES OF HALLOWEEN) and I haven’t heard much about him.
Now all the sudden here comes a generically titled thriller for the VOD/DTV market and if you bother to check the credits then sure enough, there’s Lucky McKee. I assume it was never intended for wide theatrical release, because John Cusack (THE CONTRACT, WAR INC., THE FACTORY, THE NUMBERS STATION, THE FROZEN GROUND, THE BAG MAN, DRIVE HARD, THE PRINCE, RECLAIM, CELL, ARSENAL) plays the villain. It ‘s possible that it was a for-hire gig for McKee, since he’s written most of his previous movies, while this one is credited to Jared Butler and Lars Norberg. Both seem to be debuting as writers, but Butler voices the Johnny Depp characters (Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Tonto) in a bunch of Disney video games! As far as I could tell he didn’t bring any of that knowledge to this story.
It concerns three college age kids who grew up together, now reunited for a camping trip, and they find some bags of money. And of course Cusack is the dangerous guy the loot belongs to, who tries to get it back from them. It’s a premise we’ve seen many times, but that’s because it works. (read the rest of this shit…)
Who will survive and what will be left of them and also will they grow up to be Leatherface?
As you are all aware, Tobe Hooper’s two TEXAS CHAIN SAW masterpieces are holy horror writ to me. But since Hooper’s second chapter more than thirty years ago a succession of copyright holders have given us LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE the remake and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING and by then I was able to have realistic enough expectations to let it go and enjoy TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D as just some stupid bullshit where yeah, the Leatherface looks fucking horrible, but at least Alexandra Daddario finds out she’s his cousin and decides to side with him and throw him his chainsaw. That was pretty funny.
With that standard in mind, the new prequel LEATHERFACE (the second prequel/premaquel in the series, and the second movie called LEATHERFACE in the series, but the first of the series that is both a prequel/premaquel and called LEATHERFACE) is a really impressive feat. It’s the first TEXAS CHAINSAW that doesn’t at all follow the template of the original. It’s a different subgenre – outlaws on the run – that happens to take place in some approximation of Hooper’s universe. No, I don’t want a backstory for Leatherface, but after accepting that they’re set on doing that task (again), I was glad they found a more clever way to do it this time. The screenplay is by somebody named Seth M. Sherwood, but it’s directed by France’s Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury, who did the excellent INSIDE and LIVID. (read the rest of this shit…)
I don’t always do a BEST OF list, but as the rancid corpse of 2017 rots on the side of the street it seems like a good time to remind ourselves that good things still exist. I’m not in a ranking mood (I don’t always feel up to figuring out how to measure, say, THE FLORIDA PROJECT against BOYKA) so I’m gonna do some categories and just go through a bunch of the movies I enjoyed this year in hopes of encouraging other people to check them out or share their love for them or the ones that they were passionate about themselves.
Some of these I didn’t write about, and some of them I am working on reviews of (as marked). Most will of course link to my reviews for more in-depth thoughts. But I think you’ll find some surprises and many things not on other peoples’ lists.
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(may contain traces of spoilers)
THE SHAPE OF WATER is kinda like Guillermo del Toro’s version of AMELIE, and obviously in his version Amelie fucks a sea monster. Sally Hawkins (NEVER LET ME GO, GODZILLA) plays Elisa, a mute (but not deaf) lady living a quirky life in Cold War era Baltimore. Her apartment is above a beautiful one-screen movie theater showing THE STORY OF RUTH. Her next door neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins, BLUE STEEL) is a gay painter of magazine advertisements who lives with a bunch of cats. In the opening scene, a nearby chocolate factory is on fire, so he’s even given an impression of how the place smells (shoulda seen it in 4DX).
Elisa’s job is mopping floors in an aerospace research lab, and one night the bosses bring in “The Asset” (Doug Jones, FANTASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER), a creature from the unspecified lagoon in a metal tube, for top secret experiments. Elisa and her co-worker friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer, HALLOWEEN II, DRAG ME TO HELL) don’t see it at first, but they hear its roar and have to clean up its bloody mess when it removes two fingers from sadistic head of security Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, BAD BOYS II) without getting his permission.
We all know del Toro loves his creatures, and we’ll get to that. He also delights in contrasting them against depraved monsters of the human variety. Strickland is one of these, an aggressive bully who likes to talk about “signs of weak character” and the brand and stats of the cattle prod he carries around. You know you’re a bad person if you have a little speech prepared about your favorite candy that you can suddenly go into while intimidating somebody so they’ll think “Oh good, he changed the subject to candy all the sudden, I don’t understand why but maybe we are going to eat candy now or something” and then “Oh no, I should’ve known, he only brought up the candy as an analogy for his philosophy of brutal torture.” (read the rest of this shit…)
In TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, grizzled poncho wearing already-played-The-Man-With-No-Name Clint Eastwood stumbles across a lady about to be gang raped in a Mexican desert. He rescues her with his gun and a stick of dynamite and when she puts her clothes back on it’s a damn nun’s habit!
She is Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine) and, although she’s headed in the opposite direction of Clint’s character Hogan, she ends up getting his protection. The joke of the title was completely over my head until I read about it, but she has one mule and then Hogan is metaphorically the second one. She confesses to him that the French soldiers in the area are looking for her because she was caught raising money for the Mexican army. She hates what these colonialists are doing to the locals.
(Some of the things I’ve read say that Sister Sara was scripted as Mexican. If MacLaine was supposed to be playing it that way I sure didn’t pick up on it.)
Hogan, it turns out, is sort of like Benicio Del Toro in THE LAST JEDI, he doesn’t believe in taking sides (he’s a civil war vet and thinks that makes him a sucker) but he had agreed to a job blowing up a French garrison because he’d get to keep half of their treasury. (read the rest of this shit…)