Monday, March 23, 2015

Bless This Mess

When a film made in the last twenty years achieves that rare feat of earning a 0% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes only to turn up in the Horror section of Netflix Instant, there's simply no way said film will not get its day to shine here at the Doll's House.

Quick Plot: Kim Basinger plays Maggie O'Connor, a NYC nurse and lapsed Catholic whose life (but not hair) takes a dramatic turn when her junkie sister Jenna (May's always welcome Angela Bettis!) dumps her newborn daughter in her care. 

Merry Christmas!

Six years later, young Cody has grown into a pleasant but possibly autistic little girl enrolled in a Catholic school. Meanwhile, FBI agent Jimmy Smits is hunting a serial killer taking out fellow six-year-olds while a former child actor/drug addict named Eric Stark (the always bug-eyed Rufus Sewell) has made headlines with his Scientology-ish anti-religion religion founded on self-help, clean living, and of course, satanism.

There are a lot more details that eventually connect Maggie to devil worship (among them: Christina Ricci as a heroin addict, Ian Holm in a wacky one-scene cameo as a strangely accented priest, and many, many, many terribly rendered CGI mice). There would have to be for a fairly bland 110 minute horror film. Made during the end of the 20th century's brief flirtation with apocalyptic Y2K end of days, Bless the Child is fun to imagine as the Catholic Church's most expensive commercial.

It's also fun when Christina Ricci's head rolls off.

And when a stern nanny stabs a priest's assistant in the eyeballs with her knitting needles.

And when I realized that child actor Holliston Coleman (easily the best thing in the movie, aside from the stern nanny and Christina Ricci's loose noggin) looked familiar not JUST because she once guest starred on Law & Order: SVU, but far more so because she had a small part in that Tori Spelling A Christmas Carol movie (aka A Carol Christmas, because it's a play on words) I reviewed way back when.

Anyway, director Chuck Russell is a far more talented filmmaker than Bless the Child would suggest. This is the man who gave us Nightmare On Elm Street 3, The Mask, and my favorite of all, 1988's The Blob. How he ended up here is something I don't want to think about. The script (based on a popular novel and adapted by at least three screenwriters) is both too complicated and too sparse. We're never actually told WHY or even HOW li'l Cody is the chosen one, or what being the chosen one means other than "Rufus Sewell wants you to embrace Satan with his goth minions and flying monkeys or else die." There's a lot of buildup about how the deadline for whatever black mass in question is counting down on Easter, but, well, WE DON'T ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THAT DEADLINE IS REACHED.

You see my point.

Bless the Child is only a good movie if you've a) never seen a movie or b) believe Catholicism to be the most kickass thing in the world. For all others, it's probably a big skip.

Although it does include a brief glimpse at an adorable puppy.

The adorable puppy is used to lure an innocent child to his death.

But you know, PUPPY! 

High Points
The tone is all over the map, and I honestly don't know how much of the cute head rollings and demons were supposed to be scary vs. campy, but the fact that these scenes made me laugh means I was certainly entertained

Low Points
I'd like to forgive this film's embarrassing CGI for being a victim of its time, but then I remember how great Starship Troopers's completely computerized bug attacks were three years earlier and not only have I lost all the pity I had for the visual effects department, but I've also inserted the Starship Troopers Blu Ray into my player and what were talking about again?

Lessons Learned
Winning an Oscar gives a woman many special powers, but none quite as useful as evenly curling your hair with 0% frizz after your perfectly straight mane runs through mild rain

Angels do indeed exist, and they are the jerks who hold the subway doors open and make the rest of us straphangers late

All kids understand death because of The Lion King

Chekhov's Law of Knitting Needles holds strong: if they get their own closeup, they will most certainly be shown a scene or two later as a multi-purpose murder weapon

Look! It's--
Spartacus's wonderful Oenomaus himself (Peter Mensah) as an angelic janitor. Yes, in addition to angelic children, construction workers, bus riders, and subway door holders, Bless the Child has angelic janitors.

Bless the Child is not by ANY means good (remember: 0%) but we've seen far worse. As a relic from the year 2000, there's something kind of entertaining in seeing the mix of Y2K-influenced fears, early CGI, and movie star mode Kim Basinger fighting a predictable battle against a poorly rendered Satan. I don't really recommend anyone give it a chance when there are plenty of far stronger independent devil-centric films out there, but those with Netflix Instant and a thing for '90s theatrical horror might find themselves chuckling.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Gorilla + Martini = Magic

Before I discuss 1995's Congo, I'd like to introduce those who don't know about it to a very, very important website.

See, as an animal lover, I often find myself being one of those morally confused viewers who watches a film where human beings are tortured and slaughtered without a facial twitch, yet sobs like a baby who stubbed its toe when an adorable puppy is kicked or a likable hamster meets the dark limbo of a household vacuum. Call me a hypocrite in any language, but I was among those in the theater for Cold Mountain that gasped when a hungry hermit slit a goat's throat yet munched on my popcorn when hundreds of soldiers were blasted away.

This kind of attitude is what kept me away from Congo for, it would now seem twenty years. I remember the film being released and thought, as any typical thirteen-year-old girl would, "Neat! Gorillas! Jungles! Volcanoes! Ernie Hudson!" Then I realized the film included a lovable TALKING gorilla who was so clearly going to earn my instant love. Then I realized the film included human characters SHOOTING gorillas. I could connect the dots well enough (thanks, Pee-Wee's Playhouse) to know that this added up to the chance that human characters may very well shoot the talking gorilla that had earned my love.

That did not sound joyous.

Thankfully, twenty years later, I'm married to a man who has seen Congo so when I asked, "Does the adorable talking gorilla die?" he responded, 


"Are you sure?"


Okay. So I now allowed myself to watch Congo. 

Side note: does not apparently care about gorillas, as it has no entry for Congo. I still recommend it for those (like me) who nearly turned off The Caller for fear of that wonderful golden retriever suffering a cruel fate, but if you like gorillas, then I advise you to marry someone like my husband.

Just not, you know, MY husband. Because then I'll have to go all Laura Linney on you.


Quick Plot: A multimillion dollar communications conglomerate something something headed by a paranoid Joe Don Baker sends Ash to Africa to find diamonds that can power laser guns.

No, I'm serious. 

And yes, that's just the first five minutes.

Before you can say groovy, Bruce Campbell is mangled by mutant-ish gorillas and his ex-fiancee/colleague Karen Ross (Linney) is heading overseas to track him down. Meanwhile, primatologist Peter (Dylan Walsh) is also booking a flight to Africa in order to reunite his prized talking ape Amy with her motherland. His travel companions include a nervous assistant and a Romanian philanthropist hammed up by Tim Curry.

Yes, THE Tim Curry.

And yes, THE Tim Curry speaks in what might be the most awesomely ridiculous European accent humanely possible. If Congo gave me one thing, it's the new dream project of seeing Tim Curry cast in a live action musical version of Bram Stoker's Dracula but playing the titular role as if he were Sesame Street's The Count.

In my head, it's life changing.

Because one amazing accent isn't enough, we also get Ernie Hudson as Munro, a black great white hunter (it makes sense, trust me) guiding the missions. Munro is British, I guess, and speaks with a randomly pretentious lilt that seems to delight the man playing him. That's enough for me.

Also, his assistant is played by Adebisi himself, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Here's an actor that always deserves better, but it's still nice to see him show up to fight mutant-ish gorillas.

So. To recap:

Karen Ross goes to the Congo to find Bruce Campbell and maybe laser diamonds that Muppet Count Tim Curry wants while Peter tries to free Amy the Talking Gorilla and political chaos causes a lot of travel problems so we lose a few porters but Laura Linney can fire flare guns at missiles and hungry hungry hippos attempt to eat people which means we lose a few more porters while mutant-ish apes guard King Solomon's mine and we just lost two more porters and there are volcanoes, too.

I think I hit all the major plot points in that beautifully written sentence, but I did not, however, provide you a list of all the amazing things Amy does. 

No, not that Amazing Amy. Better.

Remember, Amy is a gorilla, albeit a puppet one created by Stan Winston, but still an adorable banana-eating gorilla. She adorably does the following:

Hugs a stuffed animal
Plays with a lizard and frog

Wears 3D glasses

Paints a picture


Parachutes with Ernie Hudson
Sips a martini

Yes folks, no matter how sour that 7% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating may seem (and the lone fresh bite comes from none other than the late but always great Roger Ebert), Congo is the movie that features a cute gorilla sipping a martini. 

It is a masterpiece.

High Points
There's no other way to say this: Laura Linney as Karen Ross kicks ass. Here's an intelligent, multi-talented female character who never asks or needs help from her male counterparts, who can take down missiles, outrun a volcano, kill killer mutant-ish gorillas, stick it to her boss, tie her hair back in a soft scrunchie, and assemble a futuristic laser gun in the middle of an African cave. Screw Lara Croft: THIS is what a heroine looks like

Low Points
You can always tell when a script was filmed with some undecided decisions. Here you have Oscar and Tony winning playwright John Patrick Shanley penning the kind of screenplay that gives our main character an ex-fiance without ever discussing what made the ex, which was most likely done because the studio hadn't decided if Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh had romantic chemistry (they don't; Linney is great but you can't compete with a martini-sipping gorilla) or if test audiences wanted a romance. So instead, we have a vague attempt at romantic tension (seemingly more from the actors' instincts than script), confusing dead relationship we don't know if we should care about, and the feeling that it would all be better if Ernie Hudson and Laura Linney ended the film making out

Lessons Learned
The shortage of qualify diamonds is the real reason we haven't yet made lightsabers a commercial product

Unlike pounds of sugar, primatologists don't have prices

Stop eating Captain Wanta's sesame cake



Look, Congo is a mess of a big budget action flick, but it's a RIDICULOUS mess of a big budget action flick and as a result, it's one heck of a good time. Director Frank Marshall (Alive, Arachnophobia) spent decades playing around as a producer on Steven Spielberg's films, and he brings a sort of highly flawed, but super enthusiastic spirit of adventure to this weirdly ambitious summer film. The movie is streaming on Netflix and while there are innocent(ly murderous mutant-ish) gorilla deaths, the spirit is light enough to make this ultimately more about fun than anything remotely political. Sorry, Michael Crichton. I'm sure you hated the final product along with the critics, but when you have Ernie Hudson playing the suave hero, Tim Curry eating scenery with the hunger of Cookie Monster, an unapologetically strong female lead, and an adorable gorilla sipping a martini, you have a winner.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Man Bites the Big Apple

Low budget indie horror movies streaming on Netflix Instant can sometimes prove less enjoyable than a dentist appointment or smelly ride on a crowded 1 train. Try as I might though to battle my undying sense of optimism, I continue to browse its selections with the sunny hopefulness of a big-haired orphan on the lap of FDR.

And just like Annie's trust fund, today, I am rewarded.

Quick Plot: Malcolm is a young British-American who has spent the last fifteen years bemoaning New York City's Lower East Side loss of its punk edge to the cleaner plague of gentrification. Of course, being in his late 20s/early 30s, Malcolm never actually experienced this glorified pre-Guiliani period, but if Rent has taught us anything, it's that self-proclaimed bohemian artists are equally obnoxious as the skinny jean-wearing hipsters that have replaced them.

Alas, the grass is always greener through misplaced nostalgia, so Malcolm enlists the help of two documentary filmmakers to chronicle his mission of bringing Manhattan back to its graffiti-covered twentieth century past. In order to do this, Malcolm embarks on nightly murder sprees where he takes out any New Yorker he deems as representative of the new wave (not to be confused with the French New Wave, which of course, Malcolm and his clique of cinema-loving pals adore).

Though dedicated to filmmaker Samuel Fuller, Random Acts of Violence is most indebted to the 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog. Like Remy Belvaux’s tale, Random Acts of Violence is filmed as a narcissistic documentary and lorded over by self-righteous sociopath who bears no guilt over brutally murdering innocent bystanders by the dozen. Where Benoit Poelvoorde had a little charm, however, Ashley Cahill's Malcolm is never presented as being anything but a pathetic brat.

Therein lies the true cleverness of Random Acts of Violence. Cahill writes, directs, and stars with the vital understanding that Malcolm is nowhere near being a hero, nor anywhere close to being right. Sure, it's funny to be annoyed at a homeless man spurning free pizza because its meat topping offends his vegetarian sensibilities, but for all of Malcolm's rhetoric, he's as much a part of the system as his friends who sport modern haircuts and Godard t-shirts. His revolution begins by spreading the threat that anyone can be harmed by the atmosphere of the city, yet as soon as someone he actually cares about gets hurt by a titular random act of violence, Malcolm refuses to hear the tenets of what he has been preaching. He's a hypocrite, plain and simple, but also a violent, petty, petulant man with a trigger happy finger.

I have a feeling some viewers will watch Random Acts of Violence and complain about the unlikability of the characters or insult it as a self-important indie flick. Some may even see Malcolm as a hero with grand and justified ambitions in his quest to give New York a wakeup call. Because the film doesn't tip its hand, it is very possible that many a filmgoer--and horror fan with torture porny expectations--may not quite realize that Cahill's Malcolm is an intentionally pathetic little man. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a brilliantly utilized Kirsten Dunst cameo.

Yes, I just used the term 'brilliantly utilized Kirsten Dunst cameo' with a somewhat straight face.

Browsing the web for other information on Random Acts of Violence (also found under the titles Charm and Malcolm), I'm mostly finding angry reviews that see the film as a lame hipster horror movie. That's disappointing, but inevitable. As Starship Troopers long ago proved, good satire will occasionally be viewed as a crumby version of what it's satirizing. Opinions are subjective so for all I know, Cahill did indeed intend this to be a valentine to grimy Basket Case-era NYC and a treatise on bringing the edge back downtown. I fear for those viewers who take that moral away from the film, as I see a far more entertaining tongue-in-cheek black comedy about just how silly those negative idealists are when they idolize a world they never experienced. The Truffaut worshiping artist who rails against the modern celebrity will often be the same man humbled into submission when an A-list actress shares his elevator space. The horror in Random Acts of Violence isn't in the potential rebirth of a dangerous metropolis, but in the laughable hubris of an entitled fool.

And just look at that scarf!

High Points
For a movie all about gratuitous violence, it's refreshing that Random Acts of Violence ironically does not revel in its, you know, random acts of violence. Yes, the actual murders are abhorrent and immoral, but the film doesn't linger on anything we don't need to see. It's the act itself that is horrible enough

Credit really must go to one-man-movie band Ashley Cahill who as far as I know, probably also made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the production team. His performance as Malcolm is so perfectly obnoxious without being showy, while the film's quick flow is certainly thanks to his work behind the camera

Low Points
As someone who appreciates but doesn't love Man Bites Dog, I love how Random Acts of Violence plays off its structure but I don't love that for whatever reason, Cahill never seems to acknowledge it as (obvious) inspiration

Lessons Learned 
When trying to enter a stranger's home and they ask who's knocking, always say "Me!" with authority. Works like a charm

A German sense of humor is no laughing matter

Never underestimate the languidness of a comfortable pleb (and I suppose, while you’re at it, never get involved in a land war in Asia?)

At just 86 minutes, Random Acts of Violence is smart in getting in and out without wasting too much time. The film is streaming on Netflix and is, in my opinion, genuinely worth a watch. Fans of Man Bites Dog might see it as a little derivative, but Cahill manages to take that same concept and make it very much his own and perhaps even more interestingly, very much New York.