Monday, October 14, 2019

There's a Snake In My Mailbox & You're Invited

I dread the day I run out of '90s try-hard sex thrillers. 

Thankfully, it is not this day.

Quick Plot: Meet Bill, an NYC psychologist with a successful enough practice to host him in the upper floors of a high-rise. Normally that's probably good thing, but when one of his unbalanced patients decides to hurl herself outside the window, Bill ends up broke and colorblind.

Yes, you read that right. Witnessing the red pool of blood thirty stories down is enough to rob poor Bill of his ability to see color. Needing a break, Bill heads west to visit his college pal Bob, an even more successful doctor whose book sales and group therapy sessions have kept him living in true '90s LA luxury. 

Bill sits in on one of Bob's (terribly run) group sessions and is introduced to cinema's typical brood of stereotypically, offensively eccentric adults in need of therapy. Witness their wackiness, coupled with incredibly unfairly overtalented casting:

Buck (Lance Henriksen!), a former detective with a dead wife and anger issues

Clark (BRAD EFFIN' DOURIF), a lawyer-turned-obsessive-compulsive-counter

Casey (Shelby's beloved Kevin J. O'Connor, who makes the best cherry coke in the history of the world) a poor little rich boy artist

Richie, (actor unknown for somewhat obvious reasons), a totally responsibly portrayed trans man and yes, the "totally responsibly" comment is meant to be sarcastic

and Sondra, (Miss Scarlet herself, Lelsey Ann Warren!), a kleptomaniac nymphomaniac because if you only have one woman in a cinematic group, she obviously has to be sleeping with everyone

Well before he can cure his patients, Bob is murdered by a mysterious, athletic assassin sporting a pretty nifty retractable knife glove. Detective Martinez (Ruben Blades, having a blast in his own, much more fun movie) is on the case, or rather, he directs Bill to investigate the therapy group and find the suspect, all while living in Bob's deluxe estate. 

It's not really a bad gig, especially after a fender bender brings a very beautiful, very horny, and very young lady named Rose into his (dead best friend's) bed. 

And pool.

And eventually, kitchen table and bathtub

If you knew anything about Color of Night before I even began to recap the very convoluted plot, it's probably that this is a movie with a lot of sex, including an infamous quick glance at Bruce Willis's stand-in's penis that stopped the presses in 1994. As Bill and Rose consummate their relationship, we watch a marathon lovemaking session so long that its couple has to pause for a steak dinner...which is presumably cooked by a nude Rose and I'm suddenly thinking Color of Night IS a horror movie.

A 2 hour, 21 minute horror movie.

Directed by Richard Rush (with some deep controversial editing battles with delightfully named producer Andrew G. Vajna), Color of Night is a glorious example of the very ambitious sexy '90s thriller. Coming close off the stiletto heels of Basic Instinct, it tries to create a new recipe from the same ingredients: mysterious sex-positive femme fatale, bland white yuppy 15+ years her senior, dead bodies, judgmental cops, incredibly complicated and poorly aged attempts to incorporate an LGBTQ theme, and so on. 

It is terrible. 

But also, the kind of try-hard bit of '90s erotica that opens on sexy saxophone-filled instrumentals, immediately tosses a bloody dummy death our way, throws in a horrifically nonsensical multiple personalities storyline better handled by Days of Our Lives, and ends on an original song that was nominated for both a Golden Globe AND a Razzie.

1994 was indeed a good year.

Did I mention the rattlesnake in a mailbox? Or the fact that Dominic Frontiere's score immediately falls into circus-y flute beats when the film introduces its mentally unstable characters? The epic sex scene's transition from pool to bed is done using the connecting thread of hang gliders (I'M NOT KIDDING). You could make a drinking game out of the slow motion shots and be passed out drunk within the film's first ten minutes. 

It's a LOT. And while it's pretty much terrible, I also pretty much loved it. 

High Points
If there's one trope I didn't realize had grown on me over the last few years of diving deep into '90s sexy thrillers, it's easily the "middle aged detective who hates witness with less taxing jobs and more money." Or maybe I just really enjoy watching Ruben Blades spend every moment of his screentime harassing Bruce Willis

Low Points
As much as it's pretty fun to enjoy the soap operatic quality of Color of Night's kookiness, there is something terribly irresponsible about its complete lack of any form of education regarding mental illness and therapy

Lessons Learned
To deny red is to deny emotion

Always guess the cliche and you'll never be disappointed (surprisingly good advice in all things)

In LA, everybody needs a lawyer

When visiting a wealthier friend, always try to time your visit around his impending death. If everything lines up just right, you'll get to spend the next few weeks living in his mansion rent-free

The Winning Line
"Jesus CHRIST!" screams Bruce Willis, with seemingly no self-awareness that he's saying these words while freeing his girlfriend's palms from nails

You can always count on the industrious nerds with IMDB Pro accounts to dig deep:

Mind-blowing trivia indeed

I'm not encouraging anyone to seek out Color of Money, but if you're surfing HBO Go one night and thinking to yourself, "You know, it's been a while since I saw a sex scene that reminded me of Frank and Jane's first night together in Naked Gun," you couldn't find a better fit. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Safe Words Have No Service

It took long enough for us to have an Escape Room-themed horror flick (that's if you don't count the entire Saw series as part of the genre) so it's only fitting that the time is right for other "experience"-themed settings to replace our boring old camping trips and bachelor parties.

Quick Plot: Alex (a fantastic Marcienne Dwyer) and her boyfriend Nathan are heading to the woods for a fun-filled weekend scavenger hunt-ish activity based on slasher films. They're soon joined by enthusiastic goth couple Pitch and Marina, nerdy virgin Larry, and quiet Tim before being thrown into the woods with some mysterious clues and a safe word code to use if things get too intense.

Because this is a horror movie streaming on Shudder, you can gather that there's something a little more ominous at play. The group barely makes it through one night before crazed locals are drawing blood and body parts are turning up in bloody glory.

Of course, there's also the questionable reliability of our lead. Alex begins the film as a seeming straight arrow recovering from some trauma, but before long, we learn that her past is a little more complicated: she's a recovering heroin addict with a powerful prescription that may be creating or covering up serious hallucinations. 

Directed by Preston DeFrancis (he with cowriter Trysta A. Bissett of Lifetime's kooky A Teacher's Obsession), Ruin Me is a sharp little genre film that does something you rarely see nowadays: it keeps you guessing from beginning to end. The pacing is unusual in a very good way, keeping the audience constantly questioning both reality and tone. 

Ruin Me also benefits from being very funny. John Odom's aggressive Pitch is a highlight, and the jokes on the "experience" industry are smartly on point. What's especially sharp is that Bissett and DeFrancis's script understands where humor can work in an intense situation without undercutting the tension (witness It: Chapter Two for an example of how that same idea is poorly executed). 

It would be a spoiler to go any further into the other key to Ruin Me's success, but know that the story's turns have a very real, very important weight to them. There's a vital theme exploring controlling behavior and gaslighting, and Ruin Me handles this with strength and a deep sense of importance. What a surprisingly little treat.

High Points
As someone known for being too competitive in light activities (and who refuses to even attempt an escape room in fear of alienating everyone with her intensity in the face of game pressure), I sure do appreciate Pitch's thirst to win and Marina's rather sweet and knowing habit of talking him down

Low Points
On one hand, I could have taken far more fun with the ridiculousness of the industrious slasher weekend, but truthfully, Ruin Me's quick plotting is also one of its core strengths

Lessons Learned
Dating is for teenagers. Polyamory is for adults

Horror-themed scavenger weekends operated under most of the same rules as your average strip club

Pay close attention to the color of the pills because chances are, others are too


I found Ruin Me to be an incredibly pleasant surprise, one grounded in specific characters on a journey that found a surprising way to keep me guessing. It's a great genre treat for any fan, and as you can expect, it found a good home at Shudder. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Ma Knows Best

Anyone who's ever spent more than three minutes talking to me (be they friends or delivery people) knows that few genres excite me more than that of the psycho-biddy, often better known as hagsploitation but more classily referred to as Grande Dame Guignol. While it tends to offer more promises than satisfaction, the idea of casting middle aged women at the core of horror, often as both protagonists and antagonists (and occasionally at the very same time) is so darn refreshing for a genre that seems to feed on the young. 

It's been a lifetime since Auntie Roo chased some children and Baby Jane twirled her ice cream cones on that black and white beach, but there's a slight chance of hope that we're reviving the trope, at least if mid-budget studio horror of 2019 has anything to say about it. 

Quick Plot: Young Maggie has just moved back to her single mom's childhood town. Being a pretty white girl means she has an awful hard time fitting in, so much so that it takes a full half day before she's getting drunk with the cool kids in the local rubble park. Since Maggie and her new brood (somewhat) look their 16 years of age, they hang around outside a convenience store hoping to find someone over 21 to buy their booze.

Enter Sue Ann, a lonely vet tech who finds herself charmed by the teenagers, so much so that she invites them home to party in her very own basement. Before the semester is over, Sue Ann (who prefers to be called the titular Ma) has become the high school's most popular girl, hosting regular keggers as she tries to reclaim her own teen years.

As you might guess, Sue Ann isn't the healthiest or well-est adjusted of all adult figures. Played with a ferocious juiciness by Octavia Spencer, Ma is the kind of character you rarely find at the center of a film, much less one in the horror genre. 

Horror filmmakers can be very, very dumb.

Much like (the much worse) Greta, Ma's first mistake is that it doesn't quite trust its older, phenomenal lead actress to fully take charge. Spencer is clearly relishing her chance at playing the big bad, and Ma is never more alive than when she's being belligerent to her boss (Allison Janney! Playing second fiddle to Octavia Spencer in a horror movie! THIS IS A VERY GOOD THING!) or flirty with Maggie's dumber than vaping fumes boyfriend. The problem, just like Greta, is that the film thinks we actually care about Maggie and her concern for a group of friends so bland I can't remember how many of them there actually was.

It's not the young actors are bad. They're just young pretty teenagers attempting to carry a genre flick that could be dancing on the pinky of its real lead.

Truthfully, Ma is kind of a mess of a movie. Scotty Landes' script apparently ended up at Blumhouse at the perfect moment for director Tate Taylor (The Help) to discover it might just be the vehicle he was seeking to give his friend Spencer a meaty lead role. On paper, Sue Ann was a white woman with no backstory. With Spencer aboard, the project evolved.

If only it had a little more time to collect itself. While Ma is certainly entertaining, the 100 minute runtime is so stuffed with hastily handled side stories that it's impossible to find any footing. Crammed into the plot is a tale of '80s slasher nerd vengeance, Munchausen by proxy abuse, a torture den, and Juliette Lewis learning how to be a casino dealer. It's a little much.

High Points
Octavia Spencer is a pure delight, and for as much as this movie doesn't rise to her level, her performance is still something to see. Some bonus points to the always reliable Missi Pyle as a mean girl-turned-middle aged blousy alcoholic mean girl who gets glorious comeuppance

Low Points
Mild spoilers: I didn't necessarily need the blood of youth on Ma's hands, but her choice of murder victims (ultimately all adults, some from her past, one inexplicably from her present) seems a little bit of a cheat 

Does the Dog...
There are MANY scenes of Sue Ann being iffy with four legged patients and casting threatening glances at Maggie's beloved old lab Louie's way, but thankfully (and unlike the here's-one-more-reason-to-hate Greta), no canine is irrevocably hurt 

Am I Overthinking This Or...
I realize my adoration of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? colors a LOT of how I see the world, but could there be anything deliberate in casting Dominic Burgess as Juliette Lewis's coworker Stu? It's the kind of unnecessary role that could have been easily eliminated with no real loss to the film, but perhaps the only real reason to maintain it in the final cut is how much Burgess resembles Jane's scheming accompanist played to such perfection by Victor Buono

Lessons Learned
The modern gingerbread house was not built on sweets but on non-expired pizza rolls

Horse tranquilizers are great for fighting migraines

If you quit before you reach the haggard age of 25, you'll face no negative effects of smoking


Ma is not a well-paced or overly well-made movie, but it's something different. There's probably just too much on its mind it wants to do to get any of it done well, but how often do you get to see Oscar winner Octavia Spencer doing the robot in a bedazzled hat before sewing head cool girl's mouth shut? It's certainly something. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Eat Your Heart Out, Rollerball

A good sports flick is, for me, a great thing, but a good POST-APOCALYPTIC SPORTS FLICK? There's a special place in heaven for that.

Quick Plot: Sometime in the future, the world has become a barren wasteland of dusty agriculture and dog farms. The only real source of entertainment seems to come from "The Game," a rugby-esque sport played by both city professionals and wandering teams. One such group is led by Sallow (the late and always great Rutger Hauer), a former pro league member whose fall from grace now has him eking out a nomadic existence.

When Sallow's team has a particularly violent round of The Game, their "qwik" (think the Quidditch equivalent of a seeker) becomes too injured to carry on. A scrappy farmer's daughter named Kidda (a young and forever kickass Joan Chen) fights her way onto the team, quickly proving her skills and convincing the bitter Sallow to take a chance visiting the big underground city for a chance to go pro. 

To understand what any of this means, it's helpful to have a better picture of The Game, which is awesome and should be an Olympic medal event. The main thrust is simple: there's a dog skull in place of any traditional ball or golden snitch, and the qwik's goal is to impale it on a stake across the field. In his or her way is the equally motivated opposing team's qwik, plus the defense: a slash, drive, and backdrive (typically big dudes or dudettes armed with specific weaponry trying to block qwiks) and the position I'd most definitely fight for: the chain. 

It's exactly what is sounds like: an armored chain-spinner who in the glorious case of The Blood of Heroes, is played by a baby-faced Vincent D'Onofrio.

For all its swordplay, The Blood of Heroes doesn't overdo its violence. In fact, it's probably far more fitting to categorize this film as a sports flick over any other genre.

Written and directed by David Peoples (screenwriter of Twelve Monkeys), The Blood of Heroes is a pure delight for someone like me. Yes, any violent post-apocalyptic sports drama tends to connect, but I have TWO cases of Rollerball that prove there can always be exceptions. 

Why this film isn't discussed more surprises me. Sure, the production values are modest, it being late-era Ozsploitation, and the internet tells me that the game has found some longevity across the world (both under the name "Jugger" and "Blood of Heroes"). As a narrative, it's fairly swift and small, its "big game" played out in a dark indoor black pit of sorts with a fairly small crowd for its first half. But guys, here's the thing: The Blood of Heroes might very well be one of my new favorite sports films.

Does it hold a pomchenko to The Cutting Edge or a full-split foul ball catch to A League of Their Own? No, but its gender politics are on par. The Game is a coed sport and never once is Kidda or her female teammate The Big Climber every questioned for their sex. What's even more progressive is the film's attitude toward sex, which is to say, its total "it's cool" attitude towards sex.

Kidda has sex. She has sex with her teammate, which makes perfect sense, even if there's some truthfully light joking about how doing so after a game is as impossible as it is necessary. Later, Kidda has sex with a different teammate in a scene that is more tender but no less sexy. Her former partner shows absolutely no bitterness or jealousy. In Peoples' world, adults are attracted to each other and act on it, and the consequences are simply that they have a good time.

This shouldn't be revolutionary, but can you name a single film--especially from this era--where that's the case?

While I could have taken an extra hour of world-building in The Blood of Heroes, its smallness is incredibly refreshing and ultimately, very satisfying. We know just enough about Kidda and Sallow to be fully invested in their goals, and their supportive teammates (including a young Delroy Lindo) are intriguing enough to hold up the rest of the film. While the version streaming on Amazon is apparently cut, I found it to be nearly perfectly paced, ending (mild spoiler) on a simple post-game celebration that needs no further exposition. This is a lean, modern sports drama that hits the right emotional beats we've come to expect form our baseball and football flicks, but adds a surprising level of maturity that you simply wouldn't expect to find from a bit of Ozsploitation with a one-eyed Rutger Hauer

High Points
Seriously, this movie even has a last minute aged player coming out of retirement to sub in AND incredibly moment of sportsmanship between rivals. IT IS PURE JOY

Low Points
While it's both a product of a low 1989 budget and mediocre transfer to Amazon Prime, it's still a little frustrating to see how hard it can be to differentiate the two teams during several scenes of gameplay

Lessons Learned
Silk is real, and it is fabulous

If playing The Game with only one eye, the trick is to simply swivel your head a whole lot (or just be as cool as Rutger Hauer)

No one carries the dog boy

I loved many things about The Blood of Heroes, and with its swift 90 minute running time, there is absolutely nothing that should keep you from watching it on Amazon Prime yesterday. Have at it.