Columns Archives

The Academy of the Overrated
Bargain Bin
Cannon Corner
DVD Insanity
Movie Defender
Script to Screen
Sequelitis
Special Contributors

Bargain Bin: $5 a Day by D. B. Bates – September 24, 2010
What a setup: in a single day, Flynn (Alessandro Nivola, perhaps most recognizable from his turn in 2005’s Junebug) loses his job, loses his girlfriend (Amanda Peet), and learns his con-artist father, Nat (Christopher Walken), may be dying of brain cancer. Left with no one to turn to, Flynn reluctantly reenters Nat’s life, and what follows is a combination of a father-son bonding movie and a road movie. Unfortunately, neither movie is particularly good despite Walken’s always-welcome presence.

Cannon Corner: 10 to Midnight by Matt Wedge – February 14, 2011
Obviously, I have an affection for Cannon films. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother taking part in this column. But their attempts to cash in on popular genres and knockoffs of bigger budgeted fare led to far more misses than hits. You can understand why I expected a film that plugged Charles Bronson into a Dirty Harry-esque scenario would be nothing more than Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films with a badge. But 10 to Midnight defies expectations, delivering a solid procedural with surprising twists and grounded, believable characters.

Sequelitis: 30 Days of Night: Dark Days by D. B. Bates – February 2, 2011
To its credit, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days starts with another brilliant premise to exploit — the polar (pun intended) opposite of the first film. Instead of setting the film in a land of eternal darkness, the filmmakers move the location to sunny Los Angeles. What a great idea — putting the vampires on the defensive instead of the offensive, forcing them into hiding in much the same way humans were forced into hiding in the first film. Considering it follows a ragtag group of vampire hunters, this could have been a great opportunity to explore a moral gray area — have the hunters leveled the playing field by forcing all the vampires to clump together in easily destroyed nests, or have they turned into the same sort of monsters? Do the filmmakers make clever use of this incongruous setting? Nope! The vast majority of this film takes place entirely at night, and with the exception of an unintentionally comical scene in which vampires (looking like pale extras from The Matrix) are flushed out using high-intensity UV lamps, there’s not a single reference to the sun.

The Academy of the Overrated: American Beauty by D. B. Bates – December 24, 2010
Upon its initial release, three things about American Beauty stood out: Kevin Spacey’s fantastic performance, Conrad Hall’s breathtaking yet eerie cinematography, and Sam Mendes’s lyrical direction. I liked the film when I initially saw it, and it stuck with me enough to make it one of my first DVD purchases in 2000 (though it helped that the price was steeply discounted). Oddly, it’s a film I liked enough to own at the time but never contemplated rewatching in the intervening 10 years, until about six months ago. I thought, I haven’t seen this in some time. I’ll check it out and see how it holds up. The short answer: It doesn’t.

DVD Insanity: Assault of the Sasquatch by Matt Wedge – November 29, 2010
I couldn’t get past the fact that the missing link costume in a movie almost forty years old, that was made to look intentionally cheesy, could look more realistic than the Sasquatch suit in a modern film. Yes, I realize that the filmmakers had next to no money to shoot their Sasquatch magnum opus, but when featuring the creature so prominently, they could have spent at least a little money on a suit that didn’t look like a gorilla suit at a cut-rate costume shop.

DVD Insanity: Bad Biology by Matt Wedge – November 10, 2010
It’s incredibly hard to write about a film like Bad Biology in a tasteful manner without sounding like I’m talking around certain subjects. Since I don’t want to play coy about some of the more explicit subject matter, I will just urge anyone who is easily offended by overtly sexual discussions to stop reading. After all, if you’re bothered by my fairly dry descriptions of what happens in a movie that is soaked in sexual imagery, you’re not going to be interested in watching the film.

Bargain Bin: Badge, The by Matt Wedge – January 7, 2011
I’ve always felt that the true test of an actor is how well they hold up in a bad film. In a good film, with a solid script and capable direction, an actor can coast and let the material carry them. I’m not saying that actors do that; I just feel an accomplished director and a skilled editor can mask a lot of the faults of a weak performance and make an actor look better than he or she actually is. When an actor can single-handedly save a film from a bad script and an incompetent director and make it, if not good, at least watchable, that speaks volumes to me about their ability. Such is the case with Billy Bob Thornton and The Badge.

Cannon Corner: Barfly by D. B. Bates – January 31, 2011
It’s a small story focused on only a handful of characters, but Schroeder was absolutely the right choice to direct. Working with Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller (probably best known for shooting most of Jim Jarmusch’s films), Schroeder — like Bukowski’s writing — finds the beauty and poetry in the dive bars where much of the film’s action takes place. Every moment set in or around a bar looks like an Edward Hopper painting, giving otherwise dingy locales such glamor that would drive even the world’s biggest teetotaler to start drinking, just to be a part of it.

Cannon Corner: Bloodsport by D. B. Bates – February 4, 2011
Bloodsport ostensibly exists to dramatize the real-life exploits of martial artist Frank Dux (played in the film by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but it actually exists to show us 70 minutes of martial-arts fighting with 15 minutes of filler like plot and characters. As a stunt sequence delivery system, it succeeds admirably. As a film, it doesn’t quite hang together the way it should.

Script to Screen: Book of Eli, The by D. B. Bates – July 16, 2010
The script takes its time establishing the world and the characters before descending into an orgy of well-written, deeply satisfying violence. While on the run from Carnegie, Eli and Solara develop a sweet, father-daughter relationship. The writers wisely keep this far, far away from anything romantic, a refreshing change of pace.

Script to Screen: Box, The by D. B. Bates – October 8, 2010
Name-checking philosophers and/or philosophical works is too easy, and that’s exactly why The Box annoyed me when I read it last year. Those of you who have seen the movie — and hopefully that’s all of you, since this article will be loaded with spoilers — will know exactly what I’m talking about: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play that’s either about a ménage à trois gone horribly awry, or purgatory. In the finished film, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is shown teaching this to a class and having some sort of indistinct involvement in a school production of a play. It’s shifted much more to the background in the film than in the screenplay, which introduces it in the most random possible way and then turns it into the lynchpin of the entire story.

Movie Defender: Box, The by Matt Wedge – October 1, 2010
When people ask me about writer-director Richard Kelly’s films, my advice is unfailingly consistent: Donnie Darko is a masterpiece, Southland Tales is to be avoided at all costs, and The Box takes an insanely unfair amount of scorn for a film that creates such a brilliantly realized tone of inevitable doom.

Cannon Corner: Braddock: Missing in Action III by D. B. Bates – December 31, 2010
The similarities between the three Missing in Action films made me feel like I’d witnessed the evolution of art (if one can call a Chuck Norris trilogy art). Remember that the production sequence went two, one, three. In that order, each film gets successively better as it moves away from wanton, meaningless violence and closer to something like a resonant emotional core. In Missing in Action (the “second” film made), Braddock’s guilt fuels his vengeance. In Braddock…, screenwriter Norris and longtime collaborator James Bruner give him a wife and child — something worth fighting for.

Cannon Corner: Breakin’ by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010
Ultimately, nothing matters but the dancing. If you like break-dancing (I don’t), you’ll love this movie. The choreography is great, the dance sequences are well-shot (especially compared to the amateurish blocking during normal scenes), and the soundtrack is annoyingly toe-tapping.

Cannon Corner: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010
Sequels are all about raising the stakes, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo does exactly that. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the first Breakin’, only with a sillier plot and crazier dance sequences. It also retains its predecessor’s sense of pure glee, preventing the movie from feeling like the crass cash-in it actually is.

Movie Defender: Broken Lizard’s Club Dread by Matt Wedge – February 25, 2011
The result was a film that was funny without going for the obvious jokes that the Scary Movie franchise had already poached numerous times over. But critics bashed its straight-faced approach to comedy and audiences stayed away in droves, turned off by bad word-of-mouth that the film was just as much a horror film as it was a comedy.

Sequelitis: Cell 2, The by Matt Wedge – December 31, 2010
This is just one of the many lapses in logic presented by the film’s four (!) writers and director Tim Iacofano. While The Cell also had severe plot gaps, director Tarsem Singh was able to use the script as a jumping off point to indulge in some truly breathtaking visuals that coupled with his skill at buiding suspense to create a film that was more than the sum of its parts. The filmmakers behind The Cell 2 have no such bold plans, settling for a dreadfully dull serial killer thriller with a perfunctory supernatural twist.

Movie Defender: Cell, The by Matt Wedge – December 13, 2010
The Cell is the type of movie I should hate. The regular criticism against it is that it relies on its astounding visuals to cover up a deficient story that was cobbled together from bits and pieces of other films. This is mostly true. But the visuals on display are so intricate they — and the surprisingly good performances by the cast — elevate the film beyond its derivative story to something resembling an art film by way of a serial killer thriller.

Cannon Corner: Cobra by Matt Wedge – January 21, 2011
Judging from the view of early 2011, it may be hard to believe, but in the late ’70s through the early ’80s, it was still possible for critics to take Sylvester Stallone seriously. Films like Rocky and First Blood were commercial and critical successes that found him taking on scripting duties, tailoring characters to fit his limited acting range. Yes, he had his share of misfires (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks), but at least they were ambitious misfires. But by the time 1986’s Cobra rolled around, Stallone had squandered any good will that the critical community had for him. The increasingly awful Rocky and Rambo sequels had made him box office gold and a critical punching bag. In other words, he was a perfect fit for the Cannon Group.

Cannon Corner: Cyborg by D. B. Bates – February 11, 2011
Not much happens during what screenwriters call “the second act,” which is kind of a problem, especially for a film this short. It’s relentlessly, almost nauseatingly violent (allegedly, Pyun had to cut nearly fifteen minutes to avoid an X rating, and what remains is still pretty nasty), more than any other Van Damme movie. Part of that comes from the queasy, post-apocalyptic environs; perhaps because it was rendered so cheaply, the world Pyun creates actually looks like many parts of this country right now, making it all too believable that poverty and despair can crush us. The bulk of the nastiness, however, comes from unnecessary flourishes like Gibson’s razor-tipped shoes, which allow him to slit throats while high-kicking. I suppose it’s effective, but not in an enjoyable way.

Cannon Corner: Death Wish 2 by D. B. Bates – November 5, 2010
The only possible way to enjoy the Death Wish films is to imagine they take place in an alternate universe where the paranoid fever dreams of the elderly have all come true. They’re the relentlessly cynical antidote to Cannon’s Breakin’ films, which paint Los Angeles slums with the sunniest possible brush. However, even the elderly’s paranoia can go too far, which is why Death Wish 2 feels like an exercise in depravity rather than a satisfying revenge thriller.

Cannon Corner: Death Wish 3 by D. B. Bates – November 10, 2010
Death Wish 3 might be the most insane, spectacular action film ever made. The film trims the “fat” of the first two (such as Paul Kersey’s attempts to balance a normal life with frequent vigilante killings) and amps up the film’s universe to a degree so over-the-top, not even John Waters would be bold enough to go there. The result is a gloriously violent, laughably absurd, but undeniably entertaining masterpiece of action filmmaking. Yes, it’s stupid and silly and cheesy and inconceivable, but for its chosen genre, it’s one of the high water marks.

Cannon Corner: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown by D. B. Bates – November 17, 2010
Left with no way to top the inspired lunacy of Death Wish 3, the Cannon Group decided to shake up the formula with the fourth entry. Gone is the pattern of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) getting exposed to some sort of personal tragedy that leads to him surveying the creep-infested streets of an urban blight zone and then killing everyone in his sight. Instead, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown unspools more like a Grand Theft Auto game than a traditional Death Wish film, driven by imaginative action set-piece vignettes that build to a moderately compelling overall story.

Cannon Corner: Death Wish 5: The Face of Death by D. B. Bates – November 24, 2010
Death Wish 5 keeps the stakes frustratingly low and, with the exception of “Flakes,” entirely free of the imagination that made the other films so entertaining. Paul finds himself up against a handful of ineffectual, nonthreatening goons, all of whom he dispatches with dismaying apathy. In all of the previous films, Bronson (sometimes single-handedly) made the films work by never forgetting Paul is as wounded and vulnerable as he is angry and intelligent. Here, Bronson’s apparent disinterest in the film (allegedly, he demanded a higher salary than usual in the hopes that they wouldn’t make the film; his gamble paid off financially but not creatively) carries over to Paul, which is a huge detriment.

Movie Defender: Death to Smoochy by Matt Wedge – July 15, 2011
This is a hell of a lot of plot for a first act and that’s without even getting into the Irish Mafia outfit that takes a special interest in Sheldon’s continued success and well-being. Admittedly, the film teeters on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall into the abyss of satirical overkill before something unexpected happens: Sheldon grows from a one-note hippie joke into a character worth rooting for. In the midst of the aggressive cynicism and heavy-handed satirical jokes, Sheldon becomes a likable, somewhat too earnest protagonist whose quest to improve the world goes from being mocked to encouraged, a surprising turn for a movie directed by the ever-subversive Danny DeVito.

Cannon Corner: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection by D. B. Bates – December 6, 2010
Yes, the Cannon Group is back in all its silly glory. After last week’s viewing of the surprisingly good The Delta Force, which may be as close as Menahem Golan ever got to a real passion project, it’s time for the absurd cash-in of a sequel: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection, alternately known as Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold, even though neither title makes sense in the context of the film (it takes place in San Carlos, a fictional South American country; neither “Colombia” nor “Operation Stranglehold” are ever mentioned in the film).

Cannon Corner: Delta Force, The by D. B. Bates – December 1, 2010
The Delta Force opens with a poorly staged, poorly edited sequence inspired by the real Delta Force’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. I figured I’d be in for a silly, entertaining ride on par with Death Wish 3. A funny thing happened, though: The movie started to get good. Like, legitimately good, not just fun or mindlessly entertaining. In fact, if not for all that distracting crap with Chuck Norris, this could have been a very suspenseful successor to the Airport franchise.

Movie Defender: Domino by Matt Wedge – September 3, 2010
Over the years, critics have complained that Tony Scott makes the same movie over and over. This is essentially true. He always values style over story. His films often end with a violent shootout between several characters. His editing and shooting style seems to be inspired by the ADD-riddled mind of a twelve-year-old boy. Still, I find it difficult to fault a filmmaker for having a consistency of vision. Scott’s vision may be excessively silly and mainstream, but you always know when he has directed a film. This is something you cannot say about other mainstream, studio filmmakers (with the possible exception of Michael Bay). It’s for this reason that I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Scott’s films. No matter the subject matter, they are always an experience and usually entertaining. Such is the case with Domino.

Movie Defender: Doomsday by Matt Wedge – November 26, 2010
Film critics are often accused of being snobs. When we collectively bash a mainstream studio picture that seemingly everyone else just loves, we are seen as being stuffy and out of touch with people who just want to be entertained. More often than not, this is untrue. When a film gets a collective beatdown by the critical community, it’s usually for a very good reason. Let’s face it, if mass popularity was the yardstick by which quality was measured, the Scary Movie films would be considered classic works of art. It’s for this reason that we have critics. We often act as the vocal minority explaining why the latest Twilight movie isn’t the greatest use of film since Orson Welles uttered, “Rosebud.” But very occasionally — I stress the words “very occasionally” — film critics are snobs.

Bargain Bin: Edison Force [a.k.a. Edison] by D. B. Bates – February 18, 2011
As a critic, watching Edison Force is the equivalent to having an out-of-body experience. The critic in me hovers at a distance, knowing I shouldn’t recommend a film with such a silly plot and such over-the-top violence. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a bad film: characters crippled by clichés, a story that simultaneously indicts fascist police states and fetishizes the violence such states breed, a pat (yet exceptionally violent) conclusion, and Kevin Spacey in a laughable hairpiece. Something about it just works, though, so even as the critic part of me rolled its eyes, the rest of me sat on the edge of my seat, hoping everything would work out for the characters. This despite the fact that I knew where the plot was headed after the second scene, and I knew the film wouldn’t have the balls to go for a tragic ending.

Cannon Corner: Fool for Love by Hanna Soltys – August 27, 2010
Love is a theme everything and everyone can touch. In Fool for Love, we see various forms of love from sibling, to parental, to lover, to oneself. And through each form, viewers see how love makes fools out of all of us.

Bargain Bin: Giallo by Matt Wedge – October 29, 2010
Perhaps more damning to the film’s credibility is that its legendary co-writer/director Dario Argento has disowned it. Claiming the producers recut the film behind his back, he has expressed disappointment with the version of the film that played at festivals and has now found its way to DVD. But after viewing the cut that he’s disappointed in, I feel it safe to say that no matter how this footage was pieced together, the result was going to be a massive turkey.

Cannon Corner: Grace Quigley by D. B. Bates – January 19, 2011
I’d love to know how the pitch for Grace Quigley went. It has one of the craziest plots I’ve ever seen in a film, and I sure love seeking out crazy movies. To hear a description of its story is to wonder how the hell such a movie got made. I wish I had an answer, but the film drifted into obscurity (despite being Katharine Hepburn’s last starring role) and thus, not much information is available. Maybe the mere presence of Hepburn and Nick Nolte made it a go picture.

Bargain Bin: Grilled by D. B. Bates – November 12, 2010
Imagine Quentin Tarantino had written Glengarry Glen Ross, and you’ll have some idea of what Grilled is about. You’ll also probably understand why it quietly went straight to DVD, considering it came on the heels of stars Ray Romano and Kevin James giving up highly successful, crowd-pleasing sitcoms in which they played generally likable people. Few would look at either comedian and say, “I want to see them in a cynical dramedy where they play sociopaths.” Yet, the movie itself is actually pretty good.

Movie Defender: Heaven’s Gate by D. B. Bates – August 6, 2010
Has a more notorious film than Heaven’s Gate ever been made? Michael Cimino’s follow-up to a masterpiece, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was plagued by budget problems and negative press from day one. A disastrous early screening at an unwieldy 330 minutes was so reviled by those who screened it, Cimino himself begged for more time to edit it to a manageable length. The 150-minute cut released into theatres several weeks later received some of the worst reviews any movie has ever received in the history of the medium.

Script to Screen: Hot Tub Time Machine by D. B. Bates – August 13, 2010
Before I get ahead of myself, let me say this: I liked the movie. It’s a testament to the script itself, the cast, and director Steve Pink that the movie works despite the occasional super-cheap gag. In many ways, I think I actually prefer it to the script.

Movie Defender: Hudson Hawk by Matt Wedge – July 9, 2010
Right up front, let me get this out of the way: Hudson Hawk is not a good movie. In fact, it’s a spectacularly stupid movie featuring a mess of a story riddled with plot holes and silly one-liners. Like many of the films we will feature on The Movie Defender, it’s easy to understand why critics would beat up on the film. But Hudson Hawk is not an attempt to create high art. It’s a Joel Silver production starring Bruce Willis. The only thing that matters when we are talking about a film of that pedigree is the answer to the question: Is it entertaining? And it is with this quality that the film redeems itself, clocking in a surprisingly high number of laughs per minute.

Movie Defender: I Know Who Killed Me by Matt Wedge – June 25, 2010
It’s incredibly easy to see the flaws in a movie like I Know Who Killed Me. The script by Jeff Hammond is ludicrous, riddled with plot holes, bad dialogue and leaden attempts at psychological trickery. The lead performance by Lindsay Lohan in a dual role is shaky at best, leading to some bad line readings that only highlight the worst of the inept dialogue. But what is interesting to me about reviews of the film is that not only did critics spend most of their time wagging their fingers in misplaced fits of moral outrage at Lohan’s off-screen behavior, they turned a blind eye to the fact that, in the middle of a summer blockbuster season, a studio film made an honest attempt to stand out from the crowd. While it’s easy to consider it an overall failure, the over-the-top, anything-goes tone the film achieves puts it in the good company of so trashy they’re entertaining films like Wild Things and Basic Instinct. Don’t get me wrong — the film is not a misunderstood classic, but there’s plenty about it to recommend if you can look past the obvious flaws.

Special Contributors: Inception by Matt Wedge – August 27, 2010
I get that it was supposed to be a little confusing, but I couldn’t even get up to use the bathroom. I did about thirty minutes into it and when I came back, Jenny couldn’t even explain to me what had happened because she was so confused and then this jerk in front of us turned around and shushed us! Rude! I was just trying to understand this crappy movie that everyone was going on about.

Cannon Corner: Invasion U.S.A. by Matt Wedge – June 25, 2010
This one is strictly for hardcore Norris fans. Anyone looking for a cheesy good time will be disappointed by the dour tone and lack of creative mayhem on display.

Cannon Corner: Kickboxer by D. B. Bates – February 16, 2011
And then there’s Kickboxer, a film that defies Van Damme’s budding persona and pretty much everything anyone thought they knew about action heroes. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it proved two things that made me respect Van Damme more than I ever thought I would: He takes risks, and he’s a better actor than his often confused franglais lets on. As Kurt Sloane, he allows himself to start the film as a petrified coward who slowly transforms into a master martial artist. He exhibits a much wider emotional rainbow than Bloodsport and Cyborg suggested he could, up to and including an incredibly silly dance sequence in which his goofy grin and disco splits win him the hearts of local women.

Cannon Corner: King Lear by D. B. Bates – January 12, 2011
I’ve seen many, many, many bad movies over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen that seemed intentional. Usually, bad movies happen on accident — even the notoriously reviled Manos, the Hands of Fate started its production with the hope of making a good movie. Here, Godard simply does whatever the hell he wants, whatever pops into his head at any given time, and trust me when I say the things popping into his head during its production couldn’t fill up a haiku, much less a feature film.

Cannon Corner: Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects by D. B. Bates – February 23, 2011
Some might laugh at the depiction of Japanese culture here, but it’s no less silly or over-the-top than the portrayal of American culture. The movie works for two main reasons. First, as is often the case with Bronson’s late-period work, Nebenzal and director J. Lee Thompson create a crazy world that’s consistent within its own set of strange rules. In my review of Death Wish 2, I described it as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true.” That about sums it up.

Script to Screen: Law Abiding Citizen by D. B. Bates – December 10, 2010
I can’t sugarcoat it: I’ve never read a stupider screenplay than Law Abiding Citizen. (The script for the upcoming Kane & Lynch movie, ironically also to be directed by F. Gary Gray and costarring Jamie Foxx, is a close second.) I’ve read worse scripts — scripts that don’t even work on a conceptual level — but here’s a script with noble intentions, a solid premise, and some of the dumbest writing ever featured in a major motion picture (this includes the Star Wars prequels). It’s the sort of script where a scene starts with Benson Clyde (changed to Clyde Shelton in the film, played by Gerard Butler) saying, “You don’t have any evidence, so you have to let me go,” and ends with him saying, “Even though you still don’t have any evidence, I’ll confess.” Stupider than that: None of the high-powered prosecutors listening to him consider that logic-impaired 180-degree turn suspicious.

Bargain Bin: Leaves of Grass by Matt Wedge – November 24, 2010
I like to imagine that if Richard Kelly had directed Pineapple Express, it might have resembled Leaves of Grass. Combining a traditional genre film with unexpected plot twists and a healthy dollop of philosophical musings, the film resembles a comedic version of what Kelly tried to pull off with The Box.

Cannon Corner: Lifeforce by Matt Wedge – December 17, 2010
Lifeforce is one of the first films that the Cannon Group rolled the dice on with a big budget. As with most of their grasping attempts to hit it big, their roll came up snake eyes. With a budget reported in excess of twenty-five million dollars, Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires is a sprawling, messy epic with moments of startling horror interspersed with silly plot twists, and characters acting in bizarre ways that somehow make sense when filtered through Hooper’s oddball view of the world.

Cannon Corner: Link by Matt Wedge – August 20, 2010
It shouldn’t work. That is the thought that kept going through my head while watching Link. Super-intelligent, evil primates are the stuff of cheesy Michael Crichton-inspired adventures like Congo. They have no purpose being featured in an oddly engrossing, tongue-in-cheek indie thriller. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Cannon Corner: Love Streams by D. B. Bates – January 7, 2011
John Cassavetes did not make easy films to watch, and Love Streams is no exception. Like most of Cassavetes’s work, the film has very little in the way of plot and more than enough in the way of brutal, intense character study. Despite a slightly higher budget than he normally worked with (thought not by much — Cannon Films was not known for busting the budget on anything, especially not a challenging art film), it retains the rawness of his earlier, self-financed work. It’s the sort of movie that will make virtually anyone watching it disappointed in humanity, but that’s only because it’s so easy to believe characters like this exist in reality.

Special Contributors: MacGruber by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010
Remember when action movies were tough? Back before the Clinton liberals convinced everyone that a sensitive, ponytail-wearing, environment-loving “action hero” like Steven Seagal or a Frenchy like Jean-Claude Van Damme were worth watching, we had real heroes like Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Movie Defender: Meet Dave by D. B. Bates – December 3, 2010
Meet Dave is a pleasant surprise: a frequently funny, family-oriented sci-fi comedy boasting two of Murphy’s best performances (as captain and “ship”) since his dual role in 1999’s Bowfinger. First, he plays the stone-faced captain of a Nilian ship. Nilians are tiny creatures who look conveniently like humans but, like Vulcans, aren’t quite tapped into their emotions. They bury everything in a patriotic fervor and dedication to duty above all else. Their starship, as it happens, is shaped exactly like The Captain, in order to blend in with the strange human beings. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the crew’s search for a mysterious orb that will allow them to drain Earth’s oceans and collect the salt, which on Nil is a highly valuable energy source. That’s merely an excuse for some of the oddest fish-out-of-water comedy ever committed to film.

Bargain Bin: Messages Deleted by D. B. Bates – January 21, 2011
With more ambition, Messages Deleted could have been a great thriller variation on the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration Adaptation. The title and DVD box art give the impression that this will be a thriller in the vein of two other Larry Cohen scripts: Phone Booth and Cellular. It’s actually a thriller about a failed screenwriter embroiled in a murder mystery whose victims are right out of his only sold (but unproduced) screenplay, and it spends a lot of time talking about the conventions of movies without really twisting or defying them. Merely acknowledging clichés doesn’t automatically overcome them.

Cannon Corner: Missing in Action by D. B. Bates – December 15, 2010
Despite the film’s simplicity, I find myself on the cusp of recommending it. It lacks the campy appeal of more mindlessly entertaining Cannon fodder, though it contains the typical displays of raw, testosterone-fueled machismo often mischaracterized as homoeroticism (and with good reason — in particular, Braddock’s attempts to wrench a knife from the hands of a potential assassin could easily be mistaken for a completely different act that would have warranted an X rating). Really, it’s a sterling example of how much goodwill an effective opening can have on a film.

Cannon Corner: Missing in Action 2: The Beginning by D. B. Bates – December 20, 2010
But this film’s problems run deeper than a lack of strong characters. Plenty of action movies — especially those made by the Cannon Group — work with stereotypes more than actual characters, and they can still be fun and entertaining. Like the wave of torture porn currently infesting multiplexes, the film lingers on tawdry shock moments (up to and including a slow-motion closeup of a character getting shot in the head) that don’t add up to anything more meaningful. The film tries to use these moments to show Yin as a vile monster and illustrate the risk involved in Braddock escaping, but there are simply too many of them and they’re all too grim and exploitative to have any real artistic merit.

Cannon Corner: Murphy’s Law by D. B. Bates – September 26, 2011
Bronson plays Jack Murphy, an alcoholic robbery-homicide detective whose wife has just left him. In a bizarre twist, Jan (Angel Tompkins) has left Murphy in order to live out her dream of stripping (she calls it “dancing”). Murphy has a habit of sitting in the back of her club, getting hammered, taunting Jan, and then following her back to her apartment to peep while she makes love with other men. Seriously.

The Academy of the Overrated: Mystic River by Matt Wedge – February 18, 2011
That’s why I was so shocked when I first saw Mystic River. It struck me as a stunning misfire from a usually reliable director with a good cast overacting like they were in a high school production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Even worse, Eastwood showcased bizarre flourishes and an over-the-top score, which he helped compose, that only further pushed the film into overbearing territory.

Cannon Corner: New Year’s Evil by Matt Wedge – October 15, 2010
The results are as inept and artless as can be expected. Disappointingly, they are not inept in an entertaining manner. New Year’s Evil ends up being one of the most lifeless, dull films that the Cannon Group ever stamped their name on.

Cannon Corner: Pirates by D. B. Bates – September 17, 2010
The possibility for laughs exist in these bizarre bits of business, but laughter never comes. This long opening scene exists solely to introduce Red as a comically unpleasant, gold-obsessed monster. I give Polanski some credit for never trying to redeem this character’s faults, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed spending time with Red or any other character in this film.

Movie Defender: Postal by D. B. Bates – January 7, 2011
When Matt challenged himself to endure the Uwe Boll film Rampage, his revelation that Boll had made yet another awful film didn’t surprise me in the least. However, I felt compelled to defend his one and only decent film — 2007’s Postal, a cheerfully offensive, simple-minded but incredibly funny satire of the culture of stupidity and apathy that has slowly overtaken the American populous. Like a lot of gag-a-second comedies, not every joke works, but there’s always one that hits right after a miss. It also demonstrates that Boll’s problems as a filmmaker stem more from his chosen genre (schlocky, horror-action video game adaptations) than a true lack of talent.

Movie Defender: Postman, The by D. B. Bates – November 5, 2010
Ah, The Postman: The butt of so many late-’90s topical jokes, it makes Ishtar look like Citizen Kane. Ironically, Kenneth Turan’s dyspeptic description of the film as “Mad Max directed by Frank Capra” is dead-on — but I consider that a positive. The Postman boasts a winning combination of ambition, sentiment, idealism, and insanity. Some three-hour films are a chore to sit through, but The Postman breezes through its runtime, brimming with a unique cinematic voice and offbeat charm usually lacking in big-budget studio fare.

Special Contributors: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time by Matt Wedge – June 25, 2010
Last night, Vicki was complaining that we never see any movies that she wants to see. So, trying to keep the peace (and keep getting a piece), I offered to go see anything she wanted at the second-run theater (I may be pussy whipped, but I’m not made of money). You can imagine how much I thought the night was going to suck when she wanted to see that Disney movie with the guy from the gay cowboy movie. But, I have to say, I’m not too proud to admit when I’m wrong, and brother, was I ever wrong. This movie freakin’ rocked!

Special Contributors: Proposal, The by D. B. Bates – July 30, 2010
I sometimes wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I’d been a professional. Now, I had and still have a career as a homemaker. But aside from working two summers at Lebo’s Shoe store in high school, I never had a professional job. I was never a book editor like Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), so it’s not easy to relate to a character like that. I’d call her unrealistic — I certainly don’t know any women like her — but I can’t imagine a strong woman like Sandra Bullock not just starring in this movie but executive producing if she thought the main character didn’t accurately represent a certain kind of woman.

Script to Screen: Public Enemies by D. B. Bates – February 9, 2011
The thing that makes Public Enemies’ creative failure such a travesty is that the Midwest gangsters of the 1930s have been on Mann’s mind for at least twenty years. On January 16, 1990, he submitted a revised draft of a screenplay called Public Enemy. This script draws from history, combining real historical figures with a fictitious composite for a protagonist. Among other things, this allows Mann to play even looser with historical reality, since he doesn’t have to commit to any by-the-numbers recreations of famous moments anyone with a passing interest in crime history already knows.

DVD Insanity: Rage, The by Matt Wedge – January 24, 2011
In this tale of a mad scientist who seeks to unleash a devastating virus that turns people into insane, flesh-eating monsters, special effects artist turned director Robert Kurtzman completely frees himself and the film from the constraints of logic or good taste. The result is a silly, graphically gory, tongue-in-cheek horror flick that offers up the truly original idea of zombie vultures. In my book, that earns a film more leeway than one that only offers up another tired variation on the infected zombie genre. It still doesn’t make it a good film, but it does make it a fun one.

DVD Insanity: Rampage by Matt Wedge – December 24, 2010
Rampage boasts solid, if unspectacular, credentials. On IMDb, it currently sits at a 6.4 out of ten rating. On Netflix, it has a surprisingly high 3.3 out of five rating. The cast is peppered with recognizable grade-B actors (Matt Frewer, Michael Paré) and some personal favorite Canadian character actors (Brendan Fletcher, Katharine Isabelle). Armed with this information, I crossed my fingers and made my first dive into the infamous world of Uwe Boll. I wish I hadn’t.

Sequelitis: Road House 2: Last Call by D. B. Bates – November 26, 2010
Making a good sequel — particularly one that contains none of the actors, characters, or locations from the original film — requires one thing above all else: getting the tone right. Anybody sitting down to watch Road House 2: Last Call will expect a campy, fun action movie that takes place in the same outsized world of legendary coolers, over-tanned villains, and internal strife revolving around torn-out throats. What they get is a standard dull DTV action film whose only ties to the original film are repeated quotes of its memorable dialogue.

DVD Insanity: RoboGeisha by Matt Wedge – February 11, 2011
Whether I would have ended up watching the film on my own is debatable. Knowing my love for a good exploitation film, I probably wouldn’t have been able to avoid that title for very long. But if this film is an accurate example of what the genre offers, I may be able to avoid the other slickly titled options that I keep seeing on Netflix.

Cannon Corner: Runaway Train by Matt Wedge – July 23, 2010
Runaway Train is typical of Cannon fare in that it was obviously done on the cheap — just check out the unconvincing matte painting used for an establishing shot of the penitentiary. Also, like most of their action films, it seems to glory in its own brand of ultra-violence. But there’s something else going on here that really surprised me. Namely, despite the graphic violence and near-constant profanity, it felt a lot like the old Warner Brothers crime melodramas of the ’30s and early ’40s. The story of an angry criminal on the run from the law, it honestly wouldn’t take much tweaking of the characters to see James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the lead roles, as opposed to the less impressive duo of Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.

Sequelitis: Save the Last Dance 2 by D. B. Bates – December 31, 2010
The first Save the Last Dance may not have been a masterpiece, but it did two things exceptionally well. It took the tropes of a stale, cliché-ridden genre and turned it into a thoughtful, character-driven drama. It also allowed the characters to learn from each other, rather than having one character serve as the driving force for change. When Derek abandons his gangsta thug friends to arrive at Sara’s Juilliard audition at just the right moment, audiences could breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed like these two crazy kids were going to make it, and what’s more — we wanted them to make it.

The Academy of the Overrated: Se7en by Matt Wedge – November 19, 2010
At best, Se7en is a solidly constructed serial killer thriller. It’s just as ridiculous as the pulpy serial killer thrillers that came before it — it just sports more impressive technical achievements. It’s always watchable, but never does it transcend its clichéd script or make the characters come to life. Its critical and commercial success confounds me to this day.

Movie Defender: Silent Hill by Matt Wedge – January 26, 2011
Silent Hill actually did decent business when factoring in the worldwide numbers, so it technically doesn’t meet all of the requirements of a traditional Movie Defender write up, but it did take a whipping from the critics, currently sitting at a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. At the same time, its IMDB user rating is a respectable 6.5. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the first time that a film is embraced by the public while being trashed by the critical community. And, as I’ve often pointed out, in most of those cases, the critics are right (yes, I realize this makes me sound like a snob, but I can live with it). But Silent Hill is one of those rare cases where the general moviegoing public is right and critics missed the boat.

Script to Screen: Single Man, A by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010
When I first read the script for A Single Man in 2008, I hated it. I generally react to scripts I dislike with a mixture of disappointment and indifference. It’s very rare that something’s so bland and devoid of apparent meaning that I actively hate it. A Single Man managed to accomplish that difficult feat.

Sequelitis: Single White Female 2: The Psycho by D. B. Bates – February 7, 2011
I admit recommending Single White Female 2: The Psycho is a tough sell. A direct-to-video sequel whose biggest name (Brooke Burns) went from Baywatch to reality game-show host doesn’t seem like the sort of movie any rational person would want to watch. It has the aesthetic, soundtrack, and acting caliber of softcore porn, although without the rampant nudity. It’s less a sequel than a knockoff that may have become a sequel either to avoid litigation or to capitalize on its very derivativeness. In short, it’s not really a good movie. However, the film’s story suffers from the same sort of schizophrenia as its chief villain, which makes it one of the most purely entertaining direct-to-video sequels I’ve ever seen. (Again, don’t misconstrue narrative craziness as high quality — you should know what you’re getting into and whether or not you’ll want to endure it.)

Script to Screen: Sorority Row by D. B. Bates – September 10, 2010
But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex. The rating changed from PG-13 (the draft I read contains numerous specific references for keeping the sorority sisters’ bras on and violent acts just out of frame) to R, and the filmmakers used this change as license for silly exploitation, instead of something ironically commenting on the silly exploitation of classic slasher films.

Script to Screen: Stone by D. B. Bates – October 22, 2010
Alfred Hitchcock allegedly said, “No one ever made a good film from a bad script.” Though I can’t say that’s true 100% of the time, it is true that good scripts are turned into bad films with much more frequency than the opposite. Stone ranks high among the worst scripts I’ve ever read (and I’ve read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and the direct-to-DVD sequel to 30 Days of Night), but it piqued my curiosity. The draft I read has Edward Norton’s name on it, and he’s usually something of a quality magnet. Even when he’s in a bad film, it’s usually an ambitious misfire rather than an out-and-out bomb. So why would he not only attach himself to a script this bad but actively take part in rewriting it?

Bargain Bin: Triage by D. B. Bates – November 19, 2010
I guess I can see why Triage went direct-to-DVD. It’s a very good film, but it’s relentlessly dour and unpleasant. As has been typical of Colin Farrell’s choices over the past few years, he’s challenging himself by playing a difficult character in a difficult film that I found difficult to watch. Still, it’s a lot less oppressive and self-conscious than something like 21 Grams, so shuffling it off to DVD seems like kind of a cruel punishment for a film that’s significantly more passionate than that exercise in ACTING.

Cannon Corner: Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, The by D. B. Bates – July 11, 2011
The film’s writer, executive producer, and longtime champion, A. Martin Zweiback, took me up on that. As you may have seen, he sent me a videotape of the “writer’s cut,” which filled me simultaneously with fear and hope. Hope, because I believed a good film could come from the botched version I saw; fear, because, based on what I had seen, I didn’t know what could be done with the existing footage to substantially improve it.

To my great pleasure, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley — Zweiback’s cut — is, indeed, the great film I wished Grace Quigley could have been.

Script to Screen: Vampire’s Assistant, The by D. B. Bates – January 14, 2011
If you’ve never heard of Darren Shan’s series of Cirque du Freak books, you’re probably not alone. When I got the script, it simply had a title and Brian Helgeland’s name. I didn’t know it was an adaptation and a potential franchise-starter until long after I read it. I only knew that the script was the longest first act I’d ever read — all setup, no payoff.

Sequelitis: WarGames: The Dead Code by D. B. Bates – February 21, 2011
From that point, it’s pretty much a dumbed-down remake of the first film. Director Stuart Gillard tosses in numerous references to the original film (including the presence of WOPR, who must “fight” RIPLEY at a certain point) that come across more like cheap nostalgia than worthwhile homage. Maybe that’s because it literally steals the best moments of the first film, unabashedly and without commentary.

Script to Screen: Whip It by D. B. Bates – November 22, 2010
Adapting her own novel (which is based in large part on her own teenage misadventures in a roller derby), Shauna Cross doesn’t make the usual adaptation mistakes of overstuffing too much material into too little space or, worse, chopping so much of the novel out that the truncated screenplay barely makes sense (I’m looking at you, Dreamcatcher). The script has a lot of characters and subplots to balance, but Cross does an expert job of keeping all the plates in the air while driving the narrative to a satisfying conclusion.

Bargain Bin: Winning Season, The by D. B. Bates – December 17, 2010
Try as I might, I can’t see the logic in The Winning Season heading to DVD after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “theatrical run” for awards consideration. A funny, dark-edged sports comedy featuring Sam Rockwell as a cantankerous alcoholic coach and a plethora of rising stars (Emma Roberts, Emily Rios, Rooney Mara, Shareeka Epps) and comedy ringers (Rob Corddry, Margo Martindale). In a world where trailers frequently mislead audiences into thinking they’re seeing one thing (a good movie) when they’re seeing another (a shitty movie), how could they not cut a trailer making this look like an innocuous teen comedy along the lines of the execrable Easy A? There’s nothing wrong with tricking people into seeing a better movie than the one they think they’re seeing. That’s what Whip It did. Although nobody saw it — but that’s different. People actually like basketball.

Bargain Bin: Woods, The by Matt Wedge – December 8, 2010
Admittedly, The Woods barely holds the minimum requirements for a Bargain Bin column. Individually, there is no member of the cast who I would say it’s a shock to see in a direct-to-DVD feature. But combining them all in one feature without even the briefest of a theatrical release is somewhat surprising. Given how long the film sat on the shelf before being quietly slipped to the home video market with a barebones DVD, you would think it was a true stinker, an embarrassment that the better known members of the cast would quietly drop from their résumés. The truth is the exact opposite.

Sequelitis: Wrong Turn 2: Dead End by Matt Wedge – November 15, 2010
I watch too many horror movies. It’s a personal weakness, and one that often leads me into films of questionable taste. This, of course, is a nice way of saying I watch a lot of films that are utter crap. Despite the low odds of catching a winner, I stick with the genre and its many subcategories. Among the more grotesque and infamous subcategories are the cannibal films. Often they exist merely to shock and disgust the viewer. A good story, decent acting, competent directing, or even scares are less important than numerous scenes of people being gutted and dismembered in preparation for the frying pan. Overall, it’s one of my least favorite subcategories of the horror genre, often leaving me cold and thankful that I’m a vegetarian. In many ways, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End is the prototypical lazy, disgusting cannibal film.

Script to Screen: [Five] Killers by D. B. Bates – June 25, 2010
Everything that went wrong with Killers can be traced to the title change: from the fairly specific (or, at least, enigmatically intriguing) Five Killers to the generic, not-at-all-compelling Killers. On the page, Five Killers spins an entertaining, occasionally thrilling tale that blends Mission: Impossible-esque espionage with good-natured romantic comedy. On the screen, it seems the filmmakers decided to scale way back on the espionage in favor of the romantic comedy angle. The result is uneven, to put it mildly.