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Despite only giving Emily Hagins' first feature, Pathogen, three stars (but let's remember, three is still "above average" on a five-star scale), I unhesitatingly recommended it in my review because, well, it's a zombie movie that was made by a twelve-year-old and, aside from having basically no budget and some problems with acting ability, was a clever, fun take on the genre. Hagins returned five years later with her third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance, a teen vampire comedy whose purpose is to make fun of teen vampire comedies. And my favorite thing about it is that in every way, it's obvious Emily Hagins took Pathogen as a learning experience. My Sucky Teen Romance is a much better movie technically, with much more solid acting and a clever script (written by Hagins). In short: if you like your teen comedies with more romance than raunch, My Sucky Teen Romance is for you.
Plot: Kate (the gorgeous Elaine Hurt in her screen debut) is a shy teen with a hefty crush on comic-book-store employee Paul (Belleflower's Patrick Delgado). Kate convinces her best friend, society girl Allison (The Retelling's Lauren Lee), to go to a comic convention with her and a couple of nerdy friends, intending to run into Paul. What she doesn't know is that a few days beforehand, Paul was bitten by a vampire (Supernatural Activity's Devin Bonnée) and is in the process of changing. She also doesn't know that he feels the same way about her, but when the two of them are about to confess their feelings for one another, they're jostled in a hallway, and Paul's new fangs get jammed into Kate's neck. Which is all well and good, except that (a) they don't want to be vampires and (b) Kate's friends are all about staking the two of them before they turn for good. The two of them frantically try to hunt down the vampire that bit Paul before the process is irreversible.
I'm not going to try and convince you that there's any boundary-pushing to be done here or anything like that. This is a genre movie that revels in its genre movie-ness. This is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, a genre movie that delivers on the promises of the genre is a success on most levels you could care to mention. You could probably make the argument that I'm cutting Hagins some slack, and I wouldn't argue with you, but in all fairness, I've probably given more positive reviews to comedies in the past year than I did in the decade before that. Maybe I'm just getting softer in my old age, but I had a very good time with this one. *** 1/2
There a number of directors who have become canonical over the years whose films I have simply never gotten. Woody Allen. Mario Bava. Sam Fuller. Every time I dig into a Fuller movie I try and see what it is that sets him apart, and every time I fail. My most recent attempt was with the 1982 racism melodrama White Dog, and I think that perhaps I've figured out what the canon sees in him. I still didn't get to the "all that and a bag of racists" point with this one, but it's starting to make sense. The thing about Sam Fuller's strain of melodrama, if I'm right in my hypothesizing, is that in movies like Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street, both of which left me kind of cold, Fuller was doing that gig first; Douglas Sirk and Grace Metalious and Russ Meyer and all that lot would come after and hone the genre, so that when Fuller returned to the fold in the eighties, he not only had his own base to work from, he had everyone else's, too. And I think that, more than anything, may be what impressed me about White Dog: Fuller wasn't afraid to build on the work of others, rather than focusing obsessively upon his own corpus.
Plot: Julie Sawyer (Little Darlings' Kristy McNichol) finds what she believes to be a stray dog. Very attractive beast, if a little scraggly, so she takes him home, shows him a little TLC, and everything seems great-until all the sudden he attacks someone out of nowhere while she's walking him. Eventually, a pattern of behavior is established, and she comes to realize that he's not called a "white dog" because of the color of his coat-this is a dog who has been trained to attack black people. Believing that this behavior can be unlearned, she enlists the help of Hollywood animal trainer Keys (Terminator's late, great Paul Winfield) in retraining him. Keys, upon finding out (firsthand) the dog's conditioning, is reluctant to accept the job, but eventually becomes as obsessed as Julie with the idea that racism can be cured.
These days, in hindsight, when we think of Kristy McNichol, we think about her memoir and the horrible things that happened to her and, tangentially at best, Empty Nest. She didn't make a huge number of features over the course of her career, and Two Moon Junction was a horrible choice for everyone involved, but if you go back farther than that, McNichol was very good at what she did. Pair her with a guy like Winfield, who could take a dead guy on a table and give a compelling performance, and you've got some bones to hang a movie on. A maudlin movie to be sure, nakedly manipulative and full of the kinds of characters who have all the depth of a Phoenix snowstorm, but every once in a while there are good guys, there are bad guys, and we're not supposed to disagree. Fuller's got himself a ready-made villain-I mean, who trains a dog to attack black people?-and from there, your hero being a black dog trainer is obvious. That their characters have all the shade of a Joshua tree is kind of irrelevant.
Not a bad little movie at all; my favorite of the Fullers I've seen by a pretty wide margin. Expect something closer to a disease-of-the-week TV movie than Kurosawa and you'll have a grand time with it. *** 1/2
There are a whole lot of directors at work in America today who should be sat down-with as much force as necessary-and made to watch The Evictors, which is an excellent example of how to make a stylish, effective thriller on a basement budget. But since that's not going to happen, I can distill what they need to learn from this movie into a single sentence: look backward, not forward. Look, if you dare, at the plague of Asylum pictures and Syfy Original Movies and all that sort of dreck, and one thing you will likely notice is that everyone's waving around CGI like it's a brand-new toy they can't get enough of. It's a very loud, flashy toy, and it annoys the hell out of mom and dad five minutes after the box is opened. Now watch the opening sequence of The Evictors, which is filmed in sepia-tone; the sequence takes place in the thirties, and Pierce was going for that kind of look. It's very well-shot, it's obviously out of place, and it does what it sets out to do. If this movie was made in 2013, that sequence would probably be CGIed to death, and the movie would be the worse for it. This is not to say that The Evictors is a perfect film, not by any stretch of the imagination, but for what it is, it is a very good one.
Ben and Ruth Watkins (Kill Bill's Michael Parks and Suspiria's Jessica Harper) are a newly-married couple who get transferred to a little town in the sticks for Ben's job. They're still not rolling in cash, so the local realtor, Jake Rudd (The Bad News Bears' Vic Morrow), shows them a cheap house not far outside of town. You've seen this movie before. As soon as they move in, the townsfolk start treating them oddly, and soon they begin hearing rumors that awful things have happened in that house. With most of the town unwilling to help them, can they figure out what's going on with their erstwhile dream home before they end up being another story the locals tell their kids to keep them from going out at night?
A number of reviews I've read of the movie have as their main criticism that it isn't actually a horror movie. Compared to most of today's horror films, especially in America, it's easy to understand why people might raise this as an issue. Even something like the first half of The Descent, which has as its main fear-inducer simple claustrophobia, has a grittier, scarier feel to it than The Evictors. This is much more an exercise in atmosphere, tension, and suspense than it is horror. I do not in any way consider that a bad thing; quite the opposite. This is a horror film for people who appreciate Bèla Tarr and Krzyzstof Kieslowski movies. Better, then, to bring up some wooden acting-the more I see of Jessica Harper, the more I wonder why she continued getting roles in movies-and some set decoration that was kind of silly even for a zero-budget movie. (Just wait till you get a load of the neighbor's sitting room.) Still, despite problems, there is a great deal about The Evictors to like. ***
After the Dark (also released under the title The Philosophers), John Huddles' first film in a decade and a half, starts out with an intriguing, sobering, and rather terrifying premise. Zimit (Exorcist: The Beginning's James D'Arcy) is a philosophy teacher at an Indonesian school containing some of the world's best and brightest students. It's the last day of his class' senior year, and he's not going to let them go without one last exercise. There are twenty students in the class, and Zimit makes twenty-one. A nuclear disaster has occurred, and they are within range of a bunker that can sustain ten people for one year, enough time for the radiation level on the planet to subside enough for it to become habitable again. Given a random distribution of talents (the students pick slips of paper from a box describing their professions), an exercise in pragmatism: who gets to go into the bunker? Who lives and who dies? The execution starts off feeling somewhat cheesy, but is eventually absorbing; this is a mindgame, but it is a mindgame being played by the smartest guys in the room. It is perfectly believable that they would be able to immerse themselves so deeply into the game as to be able to visualize the scenes the way Huddles portrays them to us, as if they were actually happening, and to be able to take on the characters as deeply as they do. Would they really experience these existential crises that deeply? Yes, I believe they would, given their age and advanced mental ability. (All those nights we spent in college drinking massive quantities of alcohol and arguing about the world's problems as if we actually had a chance of solving them...) And then everything goes to hell in a handbasket. NOTE: the following paragraphs contain at least one minor spoiler regarding the setup of the film (I assume it was meant to be a twist). Proceed with caution as necessary. I will admit right off that the first thing that rubbed me the wrong way about this film may not have been the fault of Huddles' script (he wrote as well as directed). There may have been other forces at work there, he may have done all kinds of research and interviewed hundreds of people. "What would you do in this situation...?" But if all that did occur, we don't see many signs of it. We just get, in the second iteration of this game, ten survivors who cling, as closely as possible, to the morality of today's society, and when one of the survivors throws a wrench into the works, noting that a quirk in the way things are going necessitates the formulation of a new morality, everything goes off the rails, leading to the utter destruction of that iteration. At least one character voices the kind of knee-jerk resistance to the idea in such a way, given the word choice, the background music, etc., that Huddles wants us to believe that choice-to cling to modern society's moral code on pain of death-is the right choice, and that the proposition of a new morality (coming from an ogre, basically) is the wrong one. Very little here in the way or moral ambiguity. Even if you agree that the choice is a correct one-and I will argue that to the ends of the earth with you, if you like-it fails the internal consistency check. Zimit's entire purpose in playing this game is to expose the students to the practical applications of philosophy, one aspect of which, traditionally, has been the rational analysis of moral ambiguity. Any teacher worth his salt would have failed the students involved immediately for descending into chaos and violence when forced with a choice that is, ultimately, as minor as that one was. But the real failure lies in the final twenty or so minutes of the film. Huddles seems unconvinced that he has painted his characters in broad enough strokes to show us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, so he throws in two related twists at the end that entirely hamstring everything he's tried to do up to that point. Was his goal there to provide a rationale for the bad guys' actions? To make the movie into more of a mystery than a thriller? To pad a script that wasn't quite long enough for the producers? We will never know, and to be honest, by the time that last bit of silliness had ended, despite the strength of the film's first half, I no longer cared enough to wonder about it for too long. **
It is a foregone conclusion, given Hollywood economics these days, that when one finds oneself with a surprise hit on one's hands, one must make a sequel. Bad Ass was the very definition of a surprise hit; Moss' 2012 basement-budget Danny Trejo vehicle became a bona fide smash on video. This, Bad Ass 2: Bad Asses was in the cards almost immediately, and who better to join Trejo as a geriatric vigilante than Detective Murtaugh himself? I do have to give Moss credit for not having Danny Glover use Murtaugh's "I'm too old for this shit" tagline, at least.
Plot: Frank Vega (Trejo, reprising his role) is revelling in his newfound fame, but it hasn't really changed him all that much; he's still Frankie from the Block, after all, and that includes trips to the local convenience store, run by cantankerous agoraphobic Bernie Pope (Glover), with lots of barb-trading involved. Manny Parks (Constantine's Jeremy Ray Valdez), one of Vega's proteges, winds up dead, and there's a rumor that drugs are involved. When Vega starts investigating and there's some pushback, Pope comes to his aid one night, and the two end up hunting for the source of the neighborhood's drug problem-which turns out to be much more problematic than they first thought.
The safest, and yet least satisfying, route to take with a sequel is "let's take the things that worked from the first movie and amp them way up." Invariably, the end result is a series of disconnected scenes that pay lip service to the original film without any of the atmosphere that made it worth watching. Bad Ass 2 is not that bad. (Without mentioning any recent horrible sequels that fit the description, Bad Ass 2 won't give you a... hangover...) But it does emphasize things about the original, and adding Danny Glover as, basically, a mirror image of Danny Trejo triple-underlines that. There is a plot here, however much it may be lifted from one of the Lethal Weapon movies (telling you which would spoil the mechanism that allows the crooks to act as they do) and however thin a veneer over the two guys wisecracking and hitting people it may be. The upside to this is that if you liked the first one, you will find a good deal of what you liked about the first one here; it's got the same basement-budget feel with the same surprising level of talent in the cast (everyone must have worked for scale), a lot of one-liners that will make you feel vaguely uncomfortable, and a few moments of explicit, shocking violence, though none of them were as squirm-inducing (to me personally, anyway) as the Dispos-All scene in the first one. The downside, well, Moss went with the tried-and-true formula instead of trying to push a few sides of the envelope to see what the formula could get away with, and the end result, while a fun, enjoyable movie, is vaguely dissatisfying because of it. ** 1/2