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The Monkey Hustle

I first saw Monkey Hustle at the 2004 B-Fest and I enjoyed more than any other blaxploitation film I’ve seen since, there or elsewhere. It holds a 4.8 on IMDb as of writing and was panned on its release. I’m here to tell you that it’s a good film and the critics be damned.

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Monkey_HustleIn a nutshell, Monkey Hustle is about various characters in a Chicago neighborhood, their interactions, and the looming threat of a new expressway (tapping in to the freeway revolts of the 1960s and 1970s). Monkey Hustle‘s detractors argue that the plot, such as it is, doesn’t hang together and that most of the scenes don’t relate to each other and make little sense. This is all nonsense. What we’ve got here is a film loaded with subtext, with characters who don’t know they’re in a movie and don’t feel a need to explain themselves.

Look at Daddy Fox (Yaphet Kotto) and Goldie (Rudy Ray Moore). No one tells the audience that, though rivals, they go way back and that Fox has some kind of claim over Goldie. We get that from their interactions. In the climax of the film Fox and Goldie use their connections to divert the neighborhood-threatening expressway. A lesser film would have told us some pointless story about how Goldie saved the alderman’s life (alluded to) or how the alderman owed Fox some favor. In the Monkey Hustle, it’s sufficient that they exercised their influence. Look at the melancholy expression on Goldie’s face at the block party–it cost him something to make this happen.

Much of the film is taken up with the small change of neighborhood life. Characters move in and out; threads are begun and abandoned. One critic leveled the charge that no one in the Monkey Hustle grows as a character. I’m not sure that’s true (the relationship between Win and Vi is one example), but let’s address that head-on. It’s less than a week in the life of a Chicago neighborhood. How realistic would it be for any of the characters, let alone a preponderance, to grow in that span, and to also reflect on it for our benefit? The older characters (Fox, Goldie, the Black Knight, Mr. Molet) are set in their ways–they aren’t going to change. Fox even says as much to Goldie, who upbraids him for refusing to get out of the small-time hustle (“Foxy, you’re my main man! You’re my main man!”)

The film was shot entirely in Chicago’s South Side in the mid-1970s and looks it. Several scenes take place in the now-demolished LaSalle Street Station. Along with The Sting (1973), it has to be one of the last films ever shot there, and possibly the only one in a contemporary setting. This also introduces a small goof when the band returns at the start of the film from a long tour by way of LaSalle Street, which by then handled only commuter traffic and the two remaining long-distance trains of the Rock Island. I hope the band enjoyed the Quad Cities and Peoria because that’s as far as they got.

There are problems, no doubt. Whatever the subtleties of the relationship between Fox, Goldie and the alderman Chicago’s politics did not and do not work that way, a point that Chicagoan Roger Ebert made in his own review (he panned it as well, while noting it did good business). I don’t see this as a major problem. Monkey Hustle is a slice-of-life feature; while a major event in the neighborhood is the expressway it is not the only event and does not upstage everything. We see a proto-community organizer several times; perhaps he had some successes of his own. A lesser film would give him a scene with someone as the film is wrapping up in which he discusses his victory, ignoring that in real life we don’t always get to champion our successes as they happen.

It’s an enjoyable flick and much better than its reputation. Go watch it on Netflix and see what you think.

Hard Ticket to Hawaii

Hard Ticket to HawaiiI need to say a few words about the late Andy Sidaris (note the spelling–no relation to David Sedaris). Sidaris forged a successful career in television, including 25 years with ABC’s Wide World of Sports, before striking out on his own in his mid-50s to write, produce and direct a series of B-grade action movies which today are known collectively as the Triple-Bs (“Bullets, Bombs, and Babes”). All of his films followed a basic formula; Hard Ticket to Hawaii was the second of the series and probably the best of the lot.

Your typical Sidaris flick has a couple female heroines (usually former Playboy playmates), some over-the-top baddies with mullets, and a bunch of cool-if-unnecessary gadgets. Sidaris loves him some gadgets. This flick features a large, remote-controlled helicopter that is somehow integral to the plot. Why? Probably because Sidaris either owned it or knew someone who did. Lots of stuff in this movie (like the cross-dressing assassin) has the feel of “hey, I know a guy who can do x“). Oh, and it’s all set in Hawaii, probably because Hawaii’s a nice place to be when you’re indulging yourself.

The plot, such as it is, involves a smuggling ring operating in the Hawaiian islands and the efforts by agents of an unnamed government agency to thwart them. You don’t watch a for the plot but rather for the absurdities contained within. The fight scene below, whose entire conception is absurd yet delightful. The subplot involving a toxic snake, of which I dare not reveal more. The ludicrous subplot involving Sidaris playing a version of himself producing a football show. The random martial arts stuff, since it’s an ’80s movie and they do that. The sublimely banal, badly-written dialogue. The cheerfully gratuitous nudity.

I first saw this at the 2010 B-Fest. It was in the 3 AM slot; right after The Room (which, happily, I’ve fallen asleep in front of no less than three times). 3 AM usually has real crap in it. The year before was Zardoz. Looking back I don’t even remember most of what was shown then, which means I feel asleep before that movie came on. This one was different. Everyone was awake and laughing madly at the spectacle before them. This might be the best B-movie I’ve ever seen. It’s in close competition with The Monkey Hustle and Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s just fun.

Dark Side of the Moon

Dark Side of the MoonI’ve referred to Dark Side of the Moon in several previous reviews, so it’s probably time it got its own. Let’s state the important things upfront: it’s a lesser rip-off of Alien, it’s 85 minutes but feels longer, and I’d pay real money to see the crowd reaction to it at B-Fest.

In a nutshell, in turns out that Satan has set up shop on the far side of the Moon, and is terrorizing ships which wander into an ill-defined corridor between the Earth and the Moon which corresponds to the Bermuda Triangle. There’s an involved, badly written, inappropriately scored scene involving the film’s hero and numerology which explains all this, to the mounting horror of cast and audience alike.

That out of the way, the film has a reasonable B-movie pedigree. Robert Sampson (Robot Jox, Re-Animator) plays the ship’s pilot. John Diehl (Stargate) is…some crewmember. Never doped out what he does. The great Joe Turkel (Blade Runner, The Shining) plays the computer operator/engineer.  The model work is better than expected. Possessed members of the crew have evil green eyes, which is overused but effective at times (especially Turkel). Even the ship’s “Mother” (Alien) rip-off, an android named Lesli, is an interesting take on the concept if underdeveloped.

Still, it’s not very good. If you’re going to sell this crap you need better writing and better performances. Even good actors can only do so much with bad material, and these are (mostly) not good actors. The big reveal, which you see coming from a mile away, is ludicrous. The movie plods unforgivably. The laws of physics, important to space travel, take a real beating.

It’s worth seeing only if you believe my theory that it’s a missing link between Aliens on the one hand, and Ghost Ship and Event Horizon on the other.

Alien Predator

Following on from the screening of Creaturetonight’s selection provoked an argument five minutes in about who the hell selected it, and why. Liz having confessed to the deed, we moved on to speculating whether the entrails on-screen were real or especially good creature effects. Taking note of the quality of the entrails and the filming location (Spain) we decided they were real.

This is the first film by Deran Sarafian, who’s now chiefly known for his work on House, M.D. He’s come a long way. I learn from the credits that it was adapted from an original screenplay titled “Massacre at R.V. Park.” Aside from the lead characters (three American college students), everyone appears to be Spanish. Twenty minutes in as we watch a chicken meet its fate execution-style we suspect it was shot in Spain solely to get around American regulations. That or a tax dodge.

Anyway, what we’ve got here is a Spanish rip-off of The Andromeda Strain, but with an actual monster. On first glance this is a winning formula: enliven a portentous American film with additional action sequences and (one assumes) cheap exploitation. That’s what the Italians would have done. Instead the whole thing is weighed down by a badly-acted, badly-written subplot (main plot?) involving the three American students, including Lynn-Holly Johnson (as seen as James Bond’s spurned teenage love interest in For Your Eyes Only, another cringe-worthy performance). The other two are interchangeable brotards.

It has the same crazy-people village shtick as Gymkata, but it’s much less effective here. Since both films were shot in 84-85 it’s unclear to me whether one stole from the other or it’s just a case of parallel development. That, or there’s a village full of crazy people in Europe. There’s also no cheap exploitation. It’s not that I feel cheated. It’s just that if a film fails first as a science fiction film and then as a horror film as a viewer I start looking for a backend. There just isn’t one. All the characters are boring, loathsome, or one-shots, and none of their actions make any sense. Also most of them are dubbed incompetently. They talk in whispers when no one’s around and slowly during matters of urgency.

There’s a venerable tradition at B-Fest of shouting “WORDS!” at the screen during long, meaningless stretches of dialogue. We did a lot that watching this. It drags terribly. There’s a weird cross-narrative involving cars. Inexplicably cars repeatedly try to ram our main characters. We never see the drivers. These scenes aren’t really remarked on in-film and feel disconnected. Many scenes are shot in the characters’ RV. We get long, loving shots of it being driven from place to place.

It’s a pity that so much of the film is so awful–the creature effects are well done and used to good effect. The filmmakers are careful about revealing the creature. There’s one scene in particular where a sort of ground fog obscures it, but you see ripples in the fog. I liked that. I didn’t like much else. I don’t know why we finished it; possibly from a shared sense we might see it at B-Fest someday and it’s best to know what you’re in for.

Creature

It took two tries for Liz and me to watch this, according to Netflix. We don’t remember it; we definitely didn’t finish it. I don’t know why she wants to watch it; I’m just fascinated to see Klaus Kinski in a film not directed by Werner Herzog. The only other actor I recognize is Lyman Ward, one of those actors who just screams ’80s (you saw him as Ferris Bueller’s dad). The director, William Malone, is new to me. This was his first feature; most of his later work is in television.

CreatureI’d like to welcome our readers to yet another Alien rip-off. I’ll give this one odds against Dark Side of the Moon; to cover the spread it needs something better than Satanic Joe Turkel. Doesn’t sound like much but it’s a standard. In this film the planet is Titan and the MacGuffin is some kind of cylinder that apparently has bad stuff in it. In a wrinkle, there are two greedy mining companies instead of one. There’s also a character who’s either an android or the ultimate frosty female security officer.

The opening effects work rips off 2001 and then doubles down by ripping off Blade Runner’s soundtrack. Some of the foley sound is ripped off from Star Wars. Why a freighter landing sounds like an X-wing is anyone’s guess. After a few shots in space we’re on Titan and into what I assume is a cinematographer’s nightmare: dark shadows, flashing lights, ground fog, and indistinct corners. For all I know this was a shot in the basement of Pardee Hall with the lights out (now there’s a plot). This is such a cheat and it drives me nuts. Aliens, which came out a year later, managed dark shooting while still showing stuff on screen. LV-426 was a brooding, menacing locale. This just looks cheap.

Long stretches of boredom were finally interrupted by a crazed Klaus Kinski trying to sex up the android security officer, who then pointed a gun at him. It’s hard to take that scene seriously when you recall the stories of Werner Herzog pointing a gun at Kinski during the filming of Aguirre. Herzog’s never really denied that it happened. Kinski gives a decent performance as a German scientist (greedy company #2) that’s far, far better than the material. What the hell is he doing in this, three years removed from Fitzcarraldo?

This movie scored a 41 on the “End Scale.” This is when you pause a film in Netflix to see (a) how far you’re in and (b) how much more you have to endure. I checked 41 minutes in to Creature, and discovered we weren’t even halfway done. According to Liz this caused a pathetic whimper. I can’t deny it. Even Alien Predator scored somewhere in the low 50s. Oh the WORDS in this movie. It might be speech but it’s not communication.

There are too many characters for how little development they get. I can barely tell them all apart, and this isn’t helped by the ones who get offed earlier in the film coming back as zombie alien assassin familiars or some such. Hell if I know. About the only thing I can give the film credit for is making Lyman Ward’s corporate scumbag somewhat three-dimensional (when it all goes to hell he decides to just fight the alien instead of being craven).

Also the android character just disappeared. There’s this whole subplot with her requisitioning sedatives in the beginning of the film and it just goes nowhere. Even the characters in the film wonder where the hell she went. She finally appears at the end, explaining lamely that she “got lost.” And she’s not actually android. What the hell.

The film sort of redeems itself with a cheesy callback to The Thing From Another World. Sort of. Not really. Not at all actually. The end fight scene is ludicrous as you find out why you never see the creature. It’s really, really bad.

Run. As fast as you can.

Millennium

The late Lord Blake, attacking the unenviable task of evaluating Benjamin Disraeli’s skill as a novelist, recalled the Oxford concept of the “alpha/gamma” grade. Long story short, a reviewer would award this grade when confronted with brilliance mixed with baffling incompetence.

That’s how I’m feeling about Millennium right now. The concept has similarities to the inferior Freejack (though it’s been years since I watched that): humans from the 30th century are retrieving people from airline crashes right before they die, leaving the flow of history uninterrupted. Our main characters are an NTSB investigator (Kris Kristofferson), an operative from the 30th century (Cheryl Ladd), and a physicist (Daniel J. Travanti, best known as Captain Furillo from Hill Street Blues).

MillenniumThings are bad in the 30th century. The environment is severely degraded and all of humanity is barren. The people of the 30th century intend to use time travel to take people from the past who won’t be missed and then send them into a far future where the Earth is (presumably) more livable. That hangs together as far as that goes but I would think that a society which has mastered time travel could also master space travel and drop a colony somewhere. Pale blue dot and all that.

Anyway, as with most time-travel movies, the A plot revolves around a potential time paradox. That’s okay as far as that goes. The B plot, centered around the awkward relationship between Kristofferson and Ladd, really drags down the middle third of the movie. The effects work is variable; the opening air crash isn’t very convincing (in fairness, it’s better than the crash in Air Force One), but the time-travel effects look good. The makeup on the 30th century mutations is pretty darn good.

I want to like this movie. I think I did like this movie. Yet there are things that bug me. Travanti’s physicist is important but doesn’t have enough screen time. The concept of “time quakes” isn’t well-explained; why a temporal paradox would cause cascading destructive effects in the 30th century (but nowhere else?) isn’t explained either. Too much is elided in the final act. The character of Sherman the Robot is poignant, but underdeveloped. There’s also at least one inexcusable deus ex machina in the closing minutes.

It’s on Netflix; if you’re at all attracted to science fiction/time travel/Kris Kristofferson it’s worth a look. I think it’s better than director Michael Anderson’s other futuristic science fiction film, the overrated Logan’s Run.

Lifeforce

LifeforceThe B-movie credentials for Lifeforce are staggering. Director? Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist). Producers? Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of the venerable Cannon Films, producers of countless first-run B-grade action flicks (a genre that doesn’t quite exist any more). “A Golan-Globus Production” always produces a lusty cheer at B-Fest. Dan O’Bannon (Alien) wrote the script. Henry Mancini does the score. It’s adapted from a book titled Space Vampires. Throw in Patrick Stewart, Peter Firth (Hunt for Red October), Michael Gothard (For Your Eyes Only) and you’ve got actors to work with.  Does it deliver?

In a word–yes. This is such an ’80s film: grand sets, bad hair, self-important people standing around pontificating, gratuitous (if tasteful) nudity, overuse of electrical effects. I liked it. The creature effects are excellent throughout. There’s a bunch of creepy weird stuff too. It’s not overwritten nor does it lag. It also gets credit for the proper use of “desiccated” in a feature film. Patrick Stewart has a limited role but he sells it as only he can.

It’s weird watching and realizing there was serious money involved. Reportedly Cannon put up $25 million–considerable for 1985–and got about half of it back at the box office. The money’s on the screen–the destruction of London in the third act is way more convincing than you’d expect–but the story is goofy. It’s something of a soul-collection plot, but on a totally different scale from Dark Side of the Moon or Ghost Ship, and definitely superior to the former.

What really holds it back is Steve Railsback as the ostensible protagonist. His character is potentially interesting but he brings nothing to the role. The whiny, conflicted overwrought alpha male is something of a type in ’80s flicks. Thankfully writers eventually realized these characters are uniformly unsympathetic: we just don’t care about their problems. He’s on screen far too much for how boing he is. At least he’s usually paired up Peter Firth, who’s far more interesting.

I’m deliberately not discussing the plot. Not for fear of spoilers, but because it doesn’t matter. It’s all of a piece–you either like all the crap, er, elements, I’ve mentioned above or you don’t. You don’t watch a show like this for the plot.

Below

Early on in the Avengers there’s a sequence where the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is interrogating some Russian mobsters. The scene is set in Russia. It opens with a freight train speeding past a warehouse. The freight train’s locomotive is painted in a black scheme with white stripes and markings. If you know your trains it’s very clearly a Norfolk Southern locomotive. NS engines aren’t found in Russia, but they’re found in Cleveland, where the scene was shot. Every time I watch that scene I think the interrogation is taking place in the United States, not Russia, because of that contextual hint.

Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing. I have no problem with the Asgardians, or Helicarriers, or any of that other stuff. That’s all fantastical and it’s fine. An American train in Russia? That’s an actual error (“bug”, if you like) and it pulls me out of the movie.

BelowBelow is erroneous from beginning to end. The more you know about World War II, specifically submarine warfare, the less you will enjoy it. Beyond factual errors there are some weird tone problems that make it difficult to watch at times. David Twohy (best known for Pitch Black and the Riddick movies) directed. Despite a fair number of recognizable performers (Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Dexter Fletcher, Jason Flemyng, Zach Galifianakis) most of the performances are middling to forgettable. This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever watched, and that’s saying something.

We open in the Atlantic Ocean in August, 1943. We need to be clear about something upfront. At this point in the war the Germans are the hunted ones. Allied naval supremacy is almost unquestioned. U-boats are on the defensive. The German surface fleet is almost gone and its remaining units trapped in ports in France, Germany and Norway. The movie doesn’t tell you any of this.

An American submarine, the Tiger Shark, under the command of Brice (Greenwood), is directed to rescue three survivors. Already, we’re in a weird place. Very few American submarines operated in the Atlantic. It is almost impossible that a submarine would pick up survivors given their unsuitability for such operations, especially as the Atlantic in mid-1943 was thick with Allied surface vessels. Letting that pass, for now, the Tiger Shark takes aboard three survivors: Kingsley, a British merchant marine officer (Fletcher); Claire, a British nurse (Williams), and a third, unnamed survivor. There then follows an unsettlingly misogynistic sequence in which the crew passes word that a “skirt” or “bleeder” has come aboard. Operation Petticoat this isn’t. Ugh.

Brice is now interviewing the survivors, who were apparently aboard a hospital ship torpedoed by a U-boat. Brice and his second, Loomis (Holt McCallany), already seem cagey. We start meeting the ship’s crew, including Wally (Galifianakis). Wally is prattling on about a malediction. This may be foreshadowing. I’ll say right now this crew bears about zero resemblance to any submarine crew before or since. Compare Das Boot; Run Silent, Run Deep; or The Enemy Below.

Our submarine is playing tag with a German destroyer. Again, this beggars belief. Most German destroyers operated in the Baltic and the Barents. I’m not personally aware of any such encounter. A German destroyer operating in the open Atlantic in mid-1943 would be at overwhelming risk of Allied air attack. We enter traditional sub movie territory as the Tiger Shark begins silent running and looks for some cold water to hide in. Whatever, fine. The Germans are pinging.

All of sudden we’re reminded that this is a horror movie and not a crappy war movie as Benny Goodman starts randomly playing on a phonograph. Creepy? The Germans commence depth-charging. This is an effective sequence, though I’m not sure I believe the “dud” bouncing along the hull. Remember this sequence; I’m going to return to it.

Now it’s time for some real bullshit. The unexplained jazz music has provoked an angry discussion amongst the submarine’s officers. Rampant paranoia. Perfect time for a crewman to discover (via discovered clothing, because screw this movie) that the third survivor is…a German POW! And the British nurse hid this because…she “Wanted to save one.” This makes no sense. We’re asked to believe that a British nurse circa 1943 would prioritize a German life over her own, that of her fellow British survivor, and over those of the American crew who saved her. That’s very unlikely. We’re also asked to believe that an American submarine crew would execute a German POW on the spot, or at least that she’d believe such a thing would happen. Granted, this crew is really twitchy for reasons that become apparent later, but she didn’t know that when she started the deception. Atrocities at sea were uncommon in World War II, at least in the Atlantic. Leaving shipwrecked survivors to drown was common, yes, but shooting survivors was not. Only one such instance was attested at Nuremburg, that of Heinz-Wilhelm Eck on the U-852. American and British forces made no special efforts to rescue German sailors but did so when the opportunity arose. This whole sequence of events is ahistorical nonsense in the service of a swiftly contriving plot.

Anyway, there’s a confrontation which swiftly escalates and the German is killed. Claire is confined to quarters. We’re treated to an artistic hand-washing sequence as Brice contemplates his choices. Maybe that’s Bruce Greenwood wondering how he gets out of this chickenshit movie. Benny Goodman starts playing again. Brice destroys the phonograph in a rage.

The submarine is still traveling underwater. It’s been under a while. Now we embark on another stupid plot thread. The officers are concerned about “hydrogen levels” and the need to surface. It’s true that hydrogen buildup was a big problem in diesel-electric submarines (like this one) and could cause explosions. However, it could only occur during a battery charge. Diesel-electric submarines ran on diesel engines when surfaced and on battery power when submerged. Batteries could only be charged by the diesels, and the diesels could only run when surfaced, because of the need to vent the exhaust. Hydrogen buildup isn’t an issue when running off the battery. Running out of battery power? Yes. Buildup of carbon dioxide because of no opportunity to vent the boat’s atmosphere? Sure. These are perfectly suitable plot threads, and tend to be in other submarine movies.

A couple crewmen throw the dead German survivor in with Claire, who hears voices and freaks out. She then delivers a stern moral stricture to the crew about respect for the dead and such. This is all very charming. As an aside, most movies set aboard World War II-era submarines try to hide that they’re using cutaway sets. The boat is much too roomy. Now Stumbo (Flemyng) is also hearing voices. We now get a little more misogyny. Good times.

Through another contrivance Claire finds the patrol log for the Tiger Shark in Brice’s quarters. She reads it, of course, and learns that the Tiger Shark was stalking shipping. In case it’s unclear, German merchant ships were not randomly trawling the Atlantic in 1943, and American submarines were not sent to the Atlantic to hunt these non-existent targets. She continues hearing voices. She discovers two things: the there’s a page missing from the log, and the log before the missing page is written in a hand other than Brice’s. What Can It Mean?

Well, well, the plot thickens. Brice isn’t the original captain–some other fellow named Winters (Nick Hobbs) is! Further, he was a fan of Benny Goodman! Where is he? The mystery is stalled as the German destroyer shows up again. Sure, whatever. Brice puts the submarine on the bottom, 200 feet down, which is a reasonable strategy. That the water is only 200 feet deep is not, unless they’re operating right off the European coast. That’s not plausible unless the British were sailing a hospital ship out there, and that’s not plausible at all.

Brice is now telling an obvious lie to Claire concerning the missing captain; that the submarine torpedoed a German submarine tender but the captain was lost overboard inspecting debris. Okay, sure. Again, no German tender would be located in these waters. It’s made clear that Brice is lying through his teeth to Claire about what happened to the captain. By the way, the German destroyer is still out there and it’s attacking with “grappling hooks.” Do I need to say it? THIS WAS NOT A THING. Brice freezes because he’s an idiot and the sub starts flooding. That’s probably bad.

The sub has developed an oil leak and is leaving a slick. They’re going to address this by free-diving outside, while submerged, and fix it. Screw this movie. NOT A THING. If a sub had damage outside the pressure hull during World War II it surfaced to repair. If there was an enemy up there well that was just too darn bad. That’s how many subs met the end, in all navies. Whatever dramatic quality this movie might possess is overwhelmed by my loathing for its sheer implausibility. None of this could happen and none of it is plausible. The free divers are now spooked by some kind of manta or stingray. Rather doubt you’d see one in the North Atlantic, but whatever.

Now is as good a time as anything to mention this stupid on-going tension among the officers. Three were topside with Winters, the former captain, when he disappeared: Brice, Loomis, and Coors (Scott Foley, who looks like a low-rent Ron Livingstone). They’re clearly hiding something, and it puts them into tension with Odell (Matthew Davis), a fresh-faced Naval Academy graduate. Odell, Coors, and Wally are in the diving party, and Coors is now spinning some story about how Winters wanted to machine-gun German survivors, and they all opposed him and in the ensuing struggle he died. Right after finishing this lie Coors has a vision of Winters and dies in an implausible accident. Did I mention this is only the halfway point of this ill-conceived mess? Cripes. It’s also implied that Odell, not Coors, was supposed to die in an “accident” out there.

Claire now tries to lead a mutiny against Brice, saying that ship is cursed. I’m not sure, given the previous rampant misogyny, why anyone would listen to her. Anyway the mutiny fails. Brice orders a course back to the United States but the sub doesn’t answer her helm and steers a course of her own. It’s turned due east, back toward where it sank the German ship. The crew is now openly speculating on whether they’re dead or cursed or what. The Chief (Nick Chinlund) isn’t having any of it, and reminds them of the hydrogen buildup which could be affecting them.

To regain control of the sub they’re going to run a new hydraulic line for the steering. They have to enter the battery compartment to do this, which means risking an explosion from the hydrogen buildup. I’m not going to bother pulling the plans of a US fleet submarine from the era to demonstrate why this is nonsense. It’s a fair guess the movie got this wrong too, along with everything else. The repair is interrupted at a bad moment, and some manner of bad thing involving hydrogen kills most of the crew. Note that an actual hydrogen explosion would have destroyed the ship. Not only is this an impossible disaster, it’s also been executed incorrectly.

Loomis, everyone’s favorite blowhard officer, has a freakout in front of the mirror. Been there, done that. Loomis goes out the escape tower, even though the sub is still submerged, and gets impaled on the conning tower. We’re running out of characters. Brice is now hallucinating the dead captain. We consult Wally about maledictions, who theorizes Winters wanted to go down with his ship. Finally, 80 minutes in, Claire realizes the truth: the Tiger Shark torpedoed her ship in a case of mistaken identity, and Brice murdered Winters in an attempted coverup.

I’m not sure where to start here. The whole plot centers around Brice mistaking a British hospital ship for a German submarine tender, torpedoing it, then on realizing his mistake killing his superior officer to cover it up instead of organizing a rescue of the survivors. It’s risible, and it’s bad writing. In the meantime Brice has gone full-on crazy: shaved, shined his shoes, said he’s “all better now.” Odell and Brice get into a fight, and Brice shoots the radio. I liked this better when Wilford Brimley did it in The Thing. The sub surfaces and there’s a confrontation on deck between Brice and Claire. It’s boring. Odell shows up. Brice kills himself, and a passing British ship rescues the remaining crew as the Tiger Shark sinks. In the movie’s final shot it comes to rest next to the British hospital ship.

In case it’s unclear, I thoroughly dislike this movie. I dislike it because it borrows a period setting but then makes little effort at establishing itself in that period. I dislike it because it has bad writing and implausible characterization. It’s neither scary nor chilling despite its ostensible billing as a horror movie. For all the talented people involved you’d think they could have done better. It’s a shame; some shooting was done on an actual period submarine, the USS Silversides, now a museum ship in Muskegon, Michigan.

Of note, there were several incidents in World War II which might have inspired this nonsense. The most noteworthy was the so-called Laconia incident. In 1942 a German submarine torpedoed a British troopship (the Laconia), off West Africa. This was a legal sinking but on realizing that the troopship had carried mostly Italian and German POWs, the U-boat actually broadcast a distress signal in the clear and began a rescue operation. There were other such incidents on both sides. Note that this wasn’t a hospital ship–hospital ships (like the one depicted in Below) were painted white with big red crosses. These were very observable by ships, which probably accounts for why almost none were sunk by submarines–of any country–during World War II (most were sunk by aircraft).

I think the basic premise–a martyred captain avenging himself on his malefactors–could be salvaged, but the movie itself is a loss. Various characters propose during the movie that they’re actually dead (remember the “dud” depth charge?), but it would be cheating to hand wave away all the serious technical errors that way. The movie makes it clear at the end that the survivors are alive, and no character during the movie points to a technical error and calls it impossible. I also don’t see why the captain would wreak vengeance on blameless members of his crew (I had a similar gripe about Dark Side of the Moon). I discussed above how many of the characters–Brice and Claire in particular–act in ways that make no sense for their characters.

This isn’t the worst period piece I’ve ever seen. That honor goes to Andy Milligan’s Guru, the Mad Monk, which despite being a 15th century period piece featured a Vespa in one shot and a light switch in another. It’s in good company though. You have to see it for yourself (though I recommend against it) to realize how wrong the tone and setting are. Without having anything as obviously wrong as a Vespa in the Renaissance, it just doesn’t ring right at any point. I first saw this thing in 2010 and it’s annoyed me ever since. If this is a “malediction” then maybe by writing this review, the longest I’ve ever written, it’ll go away.

Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship belongs to the venerable tradition of haunted ship movie (Alien being the best example), with the added twist that Satanic forces are specifically identified as the malefactors. Other examples are Dark Side of the Moon and the not-quite-brilliant Event Horizon. This genre, broadly, has a few conventions:

  1. The protagonists are on a ship, either on a sea or in space, and cannot reasonably leave it.
  2. In the course of the movie they encounter a second ship of unknown provenance.
  3. An unknown evil entity boards from that ship, and the crew starts dying one-by-one.

Ghost ShipIn Ghost Ship, our protagonists are the crew of an oceangoing salvage tug who stumble upon an Andrea Doria-like ocean liner in the Bering Strait. It’s been lost for fifty years, and there’s a secret cargo which promises a big payday. There’s also a deadly secret and…pretty soon people are dropping like flies.

So does this movie actually work? I’ve decided on yes. First of all, you’ve got Julianna Marguiles, who’s awesome and solid in horror roles. You’ve got Gabriel Byrne who brings the proper notes to the role of the tug captain. Finally, you’ve got Karl Urban pre-Eomer. For historical interest there’s Isaiah Washington pre-Grey’s Anatomy. Emily Browning, just starting out, is hauntingly effective as the ghost of a little girl from the doomed liner. There are no casting problems to speak of.

The effects work holds up after eleven years. The CG ship effects aren’t great but they aren’t on screen much either (smart move). The gore effects are excellent, and the opening sequence is particularly well-done (and brutal). All good horror movies have one standout sequence and this is fairly high on my list of good, standalone scenes.

The story works well enough. The depiction of evil as mundane and work-a-day is a welcome to relief from over-the-top characterizations. There aren’t inappropriate tone shifts. The characters get enough development that we sort-of care when they start buying the farm. The filmmakers paid attention to the background characters from the Italian liner as well (the captain was remarkably poignant in a small role).

Anyway, I think what really makes it stand out is good production values mated up with decent casting. These provide cover for an admittedly threadbare story. The end result is entertaining and worth watching.

2010: Moby Dick

2010: Moby Dick

I try to grade B-movies for originality, but there are limits. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a gigantic whale pile-drive a nuclear submarine and jump out of the water with it in its mouth. I’ve definitely never seen it done this implausibly. What a plausible version of the sequence would look like I leave as an exercise to the reader. I’m reminded of something Roger Ebert, that under-appreciated connoisseur of genre films, wrote in his review of Pink Flamingos:

How do you review a movie like this? I am reminded of an interview I once did with a man who ran a carnival sideshow. His star was a geek, who bit off the heads of live chickens and drank their blood.

“He’s the best geek in the business,” this man assured me.

“What is the difference between a good geek and a bad geek?” I asked.

“You wanna examine the chickens?”

Asylum (shudder) has about cornered the market on low-order ripoffs, re-imaginings, and assorted crap. They’re the fine folks behind American Warships and Atlantic Rim, shameless copies of Battleship and Pacific Rim. They also made Nazis at the Center of the Earth, a modern version of of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of Earth but in incredibly poor taste.

Anyway, today Asylum’s proffering 2010: Moby Dick, a modern re-imagining of the Melville classic (which I haven’t read). Our Ahab was a lieutenant on the aforementioned devoured submarine back ’69, and he’s out for revenge in the present about the modern USS Pequod. We meet him about twenty minutes in, played by Barry Bostwick (as seen in 1982’s…something…Megaforce). He’s full-blown loon from the get-go. Our tame scientist is played by Renee O’Connor, who’s clearly come down in the world.

Like most Asylum movies, the interior lighting is just awful. Either they can’t afford to do it properly or think dark rooms like cool. Gordon Willis can get away with this because he’s awesome and the Godfather movies called for it. In general I’ve found professional offices are well-lit. Asylum should look into that.

We’re spending a lot of time underwater (good for Asylum since it lets them have even more dark lighting). There’s a long, interminable fight between another submarine, the USS Essex, and the whale. People ragged on the underwater effects from The Hunt for Red October but these are vastly worse. It also steals the hot-running torpedo from the final battle in that movie, except it’s cheap and implausible.

The acting is pretty bad all around. None of the military characters are plausible: they’re too high-strung. Everyone’s always challenging everyone else’s orders. Renee O’Connor spends the whole movie listening to Ahab’s cassette recording from the 1969 attack and making faces. Bostwick does his loon thing only it’s boring.

Asylum movies are maximally frustrating because you can never figure out why the hell someone made it. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is terrible, yes, but it at least represented someone’s personal vision. Why was this movie even made? We’ve had a sci-fi version of Moby Dick; it was called Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and it was awesome.

Now Moby Dick has attacked a cruise ship. It’s not clear why. Ahab has fashioned a harpoon from the remains of his first submarine and he uses that, instead of the nuclear weapons his sub carries (note that American attack submarines do not carry nuclear weapons in peacetime). So of course they become entangled with the Moby Dick and get dragged to crush death and everyone dies–

Damn, they blew their tanks and lived. The movie continues with a really cheap effect of the sub surfacing. There’s also a bunch of stupid tension between Ahab and his Executive Officer (XO) which isn’t done well. We then have a chase sequence in which a V-22 Osprey strafes Moby Dick. This doesn’t work well, either as an idea or a sequence.

Barry Bostwick is now dripping his blood on a harpoon and getting in to a Zodiac. This seems like a bad plan when you’re going up against the reused wire model from Megashark. Bostwick looks like Tom Waits from Dracula. The sub’s sonar sounds like the Martian attack ships from George Pal’s War of the Worlds (probably is, at that).

SPOILER: the whale surfaces beneath the morons in the Zodiacs, scattering everyone, and small arms fire proves ineffective. Time passes.

The whale has jumped over the atoll. I say again, the whale has jumped over the atoll. Bostwick is frowning a lot. He harpoons Moby Dick and dies. Now the whale has destroyed the Pequod, but not before it fires nuclear torpedoes, destroying the atoll and killing the rest of the movie’s characters, except Renee O’Connor (Final Girl Death Exemption).

Wikipedia says they blew $500,000 on this. That’s less than the price of a new passenger rail car. Next time I’m on a train I’m going to ponder that factoid.

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