"I'll just get my gear."

Nobody

Yes, it’s true – the makers of JOHN WICK have turned Bob Odenkirk (DR. DOLITTLE 2) into an action star. NOBODY (now on VOD) comes from WICK screenwriter Derek Kolstad (ONE IN THE CHAMBER, THE PACKAGE) and is produced by WICK co-director David Leitch, and it has many obvious similarities to JOHN WICK. The premise is a variation on a retired super-killer in a “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back!” situation. It mines the same entertaining territory of depraved Russian gangsters having the shock of their lives when they discover that somebody they assumed was just a random regular person is in fact a preposterously elite warrior who’s about to fuck up their whole existence. The dry, dark humor and gory, painful, expertly choreographed violence are certainly in the same ball park.

So if anybody has a bad thing to say about this movie that might not make me spit out my drink it would be “it was too much like JOHN WICK.” But I don’t agree that it’s a problem at all, because its strongest similarity is that it was another trailer that seemed to come somewhat out of the blue and made me say “Holy shit, where have you been all my life?,” and then when the actual movie came out it was simultaneously exactly as promised and so much more than anticipated. I don’t hesitate in saying that NOBODY is a new classic. (read the rest of this shit…)

Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

I know Rurouni Kenshin was a ‘90s anime series (sometimes called Samurai X) based on a manga and all that. I don’t usually pay much attention to that sort of thing, but also I knew there was a series of live action movies starting in 2012 with this one, RUROUNI KENSHIN I: ORIGINS. And I’ve been hearing for a long time that it has some really good sword fighting in it, so I’ve been meaning to see it.

But man, if I knew what it was about, I wouldn’t have waited so long! It’s true that it has some good sword fighting and other fun samurai shit in it, but also this is that most rare and beautiful type of action movie: the type that fits lots of fun action into a story that preaches against violence. It shows that nothing could be more badass than a guy who can kill a whole mob of people on his own but chooses to prove it to them while not doing it.

To put it another way, the hero Kenshin (Takeru Satoh, SAMURAI MARATHON) was such a scary motherfucker killing people for the government in his teens that everybody knew him as “Battosai the Killsword,” but now he’s so against killing that he travels around with a sword that is only sharpened on the back side of the blade.

So yeah, don’t worry, he’ll still be sword fighting. He’ll just be whapping them instead of slashing them. (read the rest of this shit…)

Hard Rain

HARD RAIN is a very enjoyable ‘90s studio action movie (with a side order of disaster) that it turns out I must never have seen. I thought I had, but I would’ve remembered how good it is!

It starts, like many good films, by pulling out of the Paramount logo and using the logo’s mountain as part of its scenery. I was thinking it would be cool if it continued to be in the background of shots throughout the movie, but no dice.

Anyway, a very cool shot that I think combines live action, digital and miniature models establishes the geography of the small town of Huntingburg, Indiana, where the Sheriff (Randy Quaid, VEGAS VACATION) is trying to evacuate the locals as the titular aggressive precipitation causes flooding that will soon be worsened by trouble with levees and dams.

Meanwhile this dude Tom (Christian Slater, THE WIZARD) and his uncle Charlie (Edward Asner, voice of Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – The Original Radio Drama) are working their shitty job driving an armored car, and they get stuck on a flooded road, unable to move further. Suddenly they’re blinded by floodlights and some guys pretend they’re going to help, but of course they really intend to rob the car. Uncle Charlie is mistakenly shot to death in the hubbub and Charlie runs away with the money. (read the rest of this shit…)

Mothra vs. Godzilla

Godzilla picture #3, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, was such a hit in 1963 that Toho realized their boy really should have an ongoing series where he battles other behemoths, so director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube and effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya (plus Haruo Nakajima redonning the Godzilla suit) immediately got to work on the next one.

Getting the rights to another studio’s characters every time wasn’t gonna be sustainable (too bad – GODZILLA VS. CAT PEOPLE would’ve been cool), so this time they decided to pit the big guy against Mothra, the giant moth goddess from Honda’s own 1961 film. I’ve always associated Mothra with Godzilla, so it’s interesting to realize that they weren’t originally intended to cross paths or exist in the same world. In a way, MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA is like if M. Night Shyamalan had made SPLIT unconnected to UNBREAKABLE and then decided to combine them in GLASS. Or if James Cameron made AVATAR VS. THE ABYSS.

Another thing it’s easy to forget is that there was an entire decade where Godzilla was always the bad guy. Here he’s in his fourth movie and the guy is just a total dick still. Only in movie #2 could you argue he was kind of good, because the other guy was so aggressive. Otherwise he’s just causing problems for everybody. For this one he doesn’t show up until a half hour in (such a diva) so Mothra gets top billing. (read the rest of this shit…)

Modern Vampires

Back in the late ’90s, being a superfan of the SHRUNKEN HEADS mythos, I was excited for a new Richard Elfman/Matthew Bright joint called MODERN VAMPIRES. I found it disappointing at the time – decadent L.A. vampires are not nearly as weird as flying severed head super heroes, so it didn’t make much of an impression. But since I revisited FORBIDDEN ZONE and SHRUNKEN HEADS in close succession this week I decided to also do this one. Now that it’s old I think it plays a little better as a b-movie piss take on the vampire movies that were being made at the time.

Or is that even what it is? When MODERN VAMPIRES went straight to video in the U.S. it was October of ’99 and the cover had a design style and not-screen-accurate fashion flagrantly copying BLADE, but it had actually premiered before both BLADE and John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had already reclaimed bloodsuckers from Anne Rice, though, so I suppose that’s what they’re playing off of, if anything. Or maybe it’s just West Coast elite NEAR DARK. (read the rest of this shit…)

R.I.P. DMX


Man do I hate starting out sentences this way, but rest in peace to DMX, rap icon who wielded the most unwieldy mix of bravado, raw intensity, heart-on-his-sleeve vulnerability and demonic horror in some great and idiosyncratic music. He seemed to appear to us already on top, shocking the world with a completely new sound and cadence. The growls, the chants, the gothic organs, the kids chanting about DMX like he’s Freddy, the catchy anthems that still get our hearts pumping today. But underneath it a sense of sincere anguish and struggle.

In his almost 25 years of music and public life he seemed to always be running from demons, on the brink of possible disaster, yet it feels impossible that they finally caught up with him. From the beginning he talked about pain and fear, he covered himself in blood on an album cover, talked about Hell, gave literal voice to his darkest thoughts, prayed to (and conversed with) God, read sad poems. But he was also known for having fun – praising his friends, driving around on four-wheelers doing wheelies and donuts (a trademark!), boasting, being funny.

And of course he had an action movie period! He just happened to be on the top at the right time to intersect with Joel Silver’s action-star-with-rappers-and-R&B-singers period. So he co-starred with Jet Li and Steven Seagal in roles where he just seemed like DMX, even if his character was, like, a hacktivist. I love that kinda shit – his screen presence was more exciting to me than good acting would’ve been – but he showed much more potential in BELLY, the one movie directed by music video legend Hype Williams. Not everything about the movie works, but it looks absolutely incredible, makes numerous interesting artistic choices and really does harness that raw DMX charisma in a powerful way.

I was so hyped for NEVER DIE ALONE, where he was the lead and stretching himself more, adapting a book by Donald Goins. It didn’t turn out to be what I hoped for at the time, and everyone else seemed to ignore it (though I have since seen it discovered and enjoyed by a few people). Like for most movie star type performers there was kind of a decline in quality, and he was content to just show up in random DTV movies on occasion, more cashing in on his name and face than finding good roles. And that’s fine. I can respect that. His heart was on the mic. Why not also play “Davie” in FAST AND FIERCE: DEATH RACE? I’m sure it was fun.

It was long known that he struggled with addiction and mental health issues that got him into reckless and inexplicable misadventures, but in recent years he appeared to have settled down a little. It seemed like the guy who on his first album said, “And I fear that what I’m saying, won’t be heard until I’m gone / But it’s all good, ’cause I really didn’t expect to live long” was aging into an old legend. Last year I watched him on that Verzuz with Snoop Dogg and it was electric to see the two of them celebrating each others’ life’s work, gushing over each other, dancing around like total dorks.

It made me so happy to watch them like that I actually tried to take some live screengrabs to capture the vibe:

DMX had a belly like a retiree and seemed so humble and flattered, being self-deprecating, almost bashful about the compliments. I hope he was able to enjoy it and really understand how much the world loved him.

Here are my old reviews of some of his movies. They’re not my best or most respectful work. I’ve been thinking about revisiting the Jet Li American period, so maybe I’ll do them more justice next time.

ROMEO MUST DIE
BELLY
NEVER DIE ALONE
CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE
LORDS OF THE STREET

Shrunken Heads

Richard Elfman is the son of novelist Clare Elfman. He grew up in L.A., then worked as an Afro-Latin percussionist in the San Francisco musical theater troupe The Cockettes before moving to Paris to perform, and later returning to form the “commedia dell’arte ensemble” or “surrealist street theatre troupe” The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. They performed Cab Calloway covers and Russian ballet songs in whiteface, won an episode of The Gong Show, released a doo wop song about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and played demons in a hallucination scene in I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN. In the late ‘70s Elfman turned filmmaker, directing the Mystic Knights’ black and white cult musical FORBIDDEN ZONE (released in 1982).

It’s a pretty obnoxious and completely amazing movie, filmed on theatrical sets beautifully designed in a German expressionist/Max Fleischer cartoon style (and sometimes noticeably made of paper). It’s a short but unrelenting burlesque nightmare of tap dancing frogs and skeletons, adults dressed as children and/or only wearing underwear, lots of Mickey Mouse ears, fezzes and boobs, every single character (and there are tons of them) a weirdo or a grotesque caricature. They move bizarrely and at fast speed, lip sync to old timey big band jazz tunes, simulate humping. It stylishly switches to animation as they plummet to Hell or through the intestine shaped tunnel from the Hercules family’s basement to the Sixth Dimension, which is ruled by Susan Tyrrell as the Cruella-meets-drag-queen Queen Doris, and Herve Villechaize as her cheating husband King Fausto.

Elfman’s younger brother Danny made some great songs for it and has a scene as Satan, singing “Minnie the Moocher” with a band of hooded, lumpy ghouls. Joe Spinnell shows up as a sleazy, drunk sailor. To me it’s soiled by its use of historical racist imagery – I know this is vintage hipster irony or some shit, but opening with a blackface pimp character looking for his heroin is a problem. And you also have to be patient with the inside joke art school forced weirdness nonsense humor ethos that thinks it’s hilarious to have  a main character named “Squeezit Henderson,” who has a twin sister played by the same actor, who is credited as “Toshiro Boloney.” (That’s actually Matthew Bright, better known for directing FREEWAY. His well-meaning drama TIPTOES, which infamously co-stars Gary Oldman as a little person, was inspired by the director’s friendship with Villechaize.)

Around that time Richard passed the creative direction of the Mystic Knights to Danny, who soon decided to ditch all the theatrics and strip down to the rock band Oingo Boingo. They became very popular and had songs on movies ranging from WEIRD SCIENCE to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. And during this time, of course, Tim Burton convinced Danny to score PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, which led to other scores, and all the sudden he was an A-list film composer.

Meanwhile, Richard directed a few of the band’s videos, but didn’t make any more movies until 1993, when he resurfaced with a silly but pretty straight forward Mimi Lesseos b-action vehicle I’ve already reviewed called STREETS OF RAGE. For that he was credited as “Aristide Sumatra,” which is the name of a character in his third movie, SHRUNKEN HEADS. Released in 1994, SHRUNKEN HEADS was written by Elfman’s old friend Bright (pre-FREEWAY) and produced by Charles Band and his company Full Moon Entertainment. So you better believe it has some tiny little guys in it. Shrunken, like the title says. (read the rest of this shit…)

Patreon sneak peek: PUMP UP THE VOLUME

Here’s a little behind the scenes thing you probly wouldn’t guess: I have close to 30 reviews I’ve written in the past few years that I’m not ready to post yet. There’s nothing I love more than doing a good themed review series, but I always start working and then get sidetracked on the current reviews or a seasonal series and then I end up starting another series that I don’t finish and then another one. I have several of them in progress and I really need to figure out how to focus and get them off my ledger. The one with the topic I’m most excited about I started writing in 2018 (jesus christ, Vern!), so I’ve been trying to wrap that one up. And then I started writing a franchise series that’s kind of a prequel to that. Sorry.

Anyway, I decided it would be cool to take one that’s not gonna see the light of day any time soon and have it as Patreon exclusive for now. So if you are currently pledging to the Patreon you can read my review of the 1990 teen rebellion pirate radio joint PUMP UP THE VOLUME. And then some day in the next 1 to 25 years you may see it posted here in the context of some other similarly-themed movies.

CLICK HERE TO PUMP UP THAT VOLUME

Promising Young Woman

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is a black comedy I heard some good things about and had been wanting to see for a while and then right around the time it came out on disc it got nominated for best picture, director, original screenplay, actress and editing Oscars. Okay – didn’t know it was gonna be that kind of party, but I’m down.

The movie opens in a bar as three co-worker bros talk shit. One of them (Adam Brody, JENNIFER’S BODY) seems like the nice one, standing up for a female co-worker the other guys are complaining about, and seeming unimpressed by their sexist horndog talk. And of course when they spot Cassie (Carey Mulligan, DRIVE [the Refn one, not the Dacascos one]) so plastered she can barely sit upright on a bench, he’s the one who goes over and tries to make sure she’s okay.

Put quotes on that last phrase. We all kinda know where this is going: he offers her a ride home, playing it like hey, I know what this looks like, but I’m just trying to make sure she gets home safe before some jerk comes along. But the next thing you know it’s why don’t you come up to my apartment and let’s have a drink (!?) and then he’s on top of her taking her clothes off while she asks him what he’s doing and he keeps telling her it’s okay, she’s safe.

And actually she is fairly safe, because as she reveals when she sits up, she’s completely sober. She just has this hobby of faking drunk to see what assholes try to take advantage of her, and then shame them when they do. Try to scare them out of doing it again. Just a weird vigilante crusade of hers. (read the rest of this shit…)

Double Dragon

DOUBLE DRAGON (1994), loosely based on the video game series, is a sci-fi fantasy action kids movie from the director of THE RETURN OF BRUNO and the producers of NATURAL BORN KILLERS. I do not personally consider it to be a good movie, but upon this rewatch I found it somewhat enjoyable on the strength of its specific only-in-the-‘90s strain of complete inexplicability.

It stars Mark Dacascos (a year after ONLY THE STRONG, a year before KICKBOXER 5 and CRYING FREEMAN) and Scott Wolf (the same year Party of Five started) as martial artist brothers, Alyssa Milano (in the window between Who’s the Boss? and EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE) as the leader of a vigilante group, and Robert Patrick (who had only done FIRE IN THE SKY and two T-1000 cameos since T2) as an evil gang leader/businessman obsessed with obtaining an ancient Chinese medallion that would give him super powers. It takes place in the cyberpunky post-The-Big-Quake New Angeles in the futuristic year of 2007, with all the satirical billboards and colorful street gangs that implies. (read the rest of this shit…)