Monday, 30 November 2015

Santa's Little Helper

Title:  Santa’s Little Helper
Director:  Gil Junger
Released:  2015
Starring: The Miz, Paige, AnnaLynne McCord, Eric Keenleyside, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Maryse Quellet Mizanin

Plot: Dax “The Axe” is a fast talking and slick businessman who is in fact so good at his job that he manages to eliminate his own job. Now he finds himself unwittingly being put through a series of training exercises by elf Billie (Paige) in hopes of becoming the new Santa’s Little Helper.

Review:  After last year giving us a passable sequel to “Jingle All The Way” with their Larry The Cable Guy fronted and imaginatively titled “Jingle All The Way 2” this film now marks WWE Studios second attempt to cash in on the festive season with WWE Wrestler The Miz being given another lead role after seemingly becoming the face of “The Marine” franchise after he starred in part 3 and 4. This time he also joined by DIVA Paige who shows up as the devious elf Eleanor who feels she has earned the role as “Santa’s Little Helper”.

This film is also another of the occasional jaunts into more family friendly fare, with the company seemingly more happy to churn out action and horror films starring wrestlers from the WWE roster. No doubt this decision is largely based on the fact that most of their product is released for the DTV market with few receiving theatrical releases if any, while it could equally be down to the fact that none of these lighter movies have been any good with “The Chaperone” still haunting me now, more so when you have Triple H one of their biggest ass kickers being reduced to hamming it up in a kids caper movie.

Gil Junger doesn’t really give us anything groundbreaking from the usual festive fare, while in away highlighting how far he’s really fallen since making his directing debut with “10 Things I Hate About You” before moving onto directing mainly TV these days.  Here though he’s clearly working from a script which seemingly can’t decide who its audience is as it flits between family themed material and more adult jokes but never settling on either one leaving the film really at times feeling disjointed at best.

The main meat of the film is the usual arsehole turned good by the festive season fare with the recently fired Dax thinking he’s taking part in an interview and the tasks assigned to him by Billie being all part of the process. These tasks of course only getting more random as the film goes on as he starts by trying resolving conflict by ticking off a bunch of bikers before trying to cheer up some old folks which soon descends into him stripping for their amusement when they turn out to be more sexed up than they first seemed. For some reason Dax never overly questions any of these tasks, while constantly somehow managing to find a way to link them to various business moguls as he tries to figure out who he’s interviewing for.

Of course when Dax does find out the role he’s being interviewed for it does end up being a cringe worthy experience, as seemingly he could have been responsible for everything from curing the common cold to being an astronaut had his childhood been better. The fact that he’s so quick to accept the position and what it entails is only the baffling. Still in a change from the usual child actor gathering that tends to be every Santa’s workshop here all the elves are normal sized actors in their twenties while Mrs Claus constantly seems to be fixed on feeding everyone cookies.

Performance wise the Miz is surprisingly not too bad as an actor, especially when compared to some of the other performances we have seen from some of his fellow wrestlers over the years and here he has a very natural charisma even if some of Dax’s actions are far from believable. That being said his great chemistry with McCord keeps things fun even if none of the tasks seem to relate to anything remotely festive. McCord meanwhile is hardly being pushed here in the role of the bubbly pretty elf, who frequently makes reference to her deformity which is essentially an overplayed way of saying she has normal ears rather than the more traditional pointy ones, but the way it’s played here you would think it’s something much more drastic.

One of the main flaws the film has is the distinct lack of any kind of disenable threat, despite the film not throwing one but three potential villains at Dax. First we have the devious elf Eleanor played here also surprisingly well by fellow wrester Paige, who despite making a large number of threats about claiming he position of Santa’s Little Helper for herself fails to do very little outside of challenging him to an obstacle course race. Elsewhere the film tries to work in villainous turns from his former boss who wants to knock down the local community centre, aswell as the former centre manager who framed Dax when he was a teenager for stealing the Christmas donations. All of which ultimately fall flat and as a result leave the film with a disappointingly flaccid finale, even if it is kind of amusing to see Dax trying to take on a digger bare handed.

While the film doesn’t feel like a waste of time as a casual watch, its lack of substance and general plotting make it harder to recommend nor place it into the cult film bracket, but looking at the mountain of similar movies out there, it’s safe to say you could certainly do worse than this, while the Miz equally makes it a more bearable experience than it may have been with another member of the WWE roster.

Friday, 20 November 2015


Title: Election
Director: Alexander Payne
Released: 1999
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Delaney Driscoll, Chris Klein, Frankie Ingrassia, Jessica Campbell

Review: Released to little fanfare in 1999, “Election” was considered upon it’s release a box office failure and like its fellow Indie comedy classic “Clerks” only really found its audience when it was later released on VHS / DVD. Still despite being ranked at #61 on Bravo’s 100 funniest movies, it remains something of an indie obscurity with few folks seemingly heard of it let alone seen it, while Director Alexander Payne would later go onto both critical and commercial success with his follow up films “About Schmidt”, the dinner party favourite “Sideways” and the recent Oscar nominated “The Descendents”

Based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name released a year before the film, it is the story of high school teacher Jim McAllister (Broderick) who secretly is plotting his revenge against the overachieving and highly vindictive  Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), a student who had earlier in the school year engaged in an affair with Jim’s best friend and fellow teacher Dave, which resulted in him being fired and later divorced by his wife Linda (Driscoll) while Tracy walked away from the scandal free of any form of reprisal or punishment. Now having set her sights on becoming student body president, Jim finally spots his chance for revenge, especially with Tracey being set to run unopposed, something he is quick to put an end to by introducing his own candidate by encouraging  Paul Metzler (Klein) a popular football player currently sitting out the season due to breaking his leg to run for election,  something which Paul surprisingly finds new purpose from.
Unwittingly though Paul has also recently stolen his sister’s girlfriend Lisa (Ingrassia), after she decided that she was just experimenting and not actually gay. In response to this rejection Tammy (Campbell) decides to run for the presidency, determined to get her revenge against her brother and Lisa, while also gaining the anarchy vote for promising to dissolve the student government if she wins and so the race to become student president begins, though with so many personal agenda’s it’s going to be anything but a clean fight.

More than happy to play around with the traditional high school conventions, Payne here crafts a darkly comic film, with nearly all of the characters playing against type, hence Overachiever Tracy is more than willing to do whatever it takes to win the election, frequently coming off like Rachel from “Glee” on crack! A hideously smug creation Witherspoon is perfectly cast to play, as she has a sweet and innocent look yet has the ability to switch styles instantly to show her darker side as soon as things stop going Tracey’s  way, while seemingly armed with a endless supply of plots and schemes to ensure she wins the election from baking 480 customised cupcakes to tearing down her opponents posters in frenzied meltdown.

Meanwhile the traditionally loudmouth Jock, represented here by Paul is a much more thoughtful and even philosophical character, yet at time painfully naïve about what is happening around him, especially when it comes to unwittingly stealing his sisters girlfriend and never actually realizes that Lisa is purely using him to spite his sisters advances. Tammy continues what  would seem to be a family trait for being philosophical and while she represents the outsiders, her personal musings on the world around her and her sexuality frequently providing the moments of indie cool and only further helping to separate this film from other high school films.

Constantly switching between the four main characters, with heavy use of voice overs, Payne truly gets inside the heads of both the candidates as well as Jim whose life is none the less chaotic outside of his vendetta against Tracy, as he harbours feelings for his best friend’s ex-wife with who a potential liaison in a motel, which also starts a downward spiral in his luck when all he receives is a bee sting to the eye, while his plans to swing the outcome of the election and their gradual unravelling only adds to the black humour, as Broderick still manages to charm the audience as the nice guy trying to play it bad, even as his choices only grown increasingly morally dubious, as you question just how low he will sink before he truly hits rock bottom.

Despite seemingly have assembled an all star cast, it is really down to pure good luck on the part of  Director Payne that history has seen his cast’s careers for the most part continue to rise, especially as upon it’s release only Broderick was a big name on the cast, with Witherspoon still yet to become America’s sweetheart, despite coming to the forefront of the public conscious the same year when she also appeared in “Cruel Intentions” meanwhile Klein would become more notable for his appearance in “American Pie” again released the same year as this film, only to soon disappear just as quickly as he had burst onto the scene. The most frustrating piece of casting though would be with Thora Birch, who was originally cast as Tammy only to sadly be replaced by Campbell on the forth day of shooting, following creative differences between herself and Payne, still despite being the second choice Campbell still makes the role her own and only makes it more of a shame that she only had a handful of roles after appearing here.

Seeing how it was released during a golden year for cinema, it’s not too surprising that this film got so overlooked on it’s original release, especially with 1999 being the year that saw the releases of The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Cruel Intentions and err…. The Boondock Saints. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the original “American Pie” also being released the same year this would have been the high school movie of choice, but still despite this it is still a darkly comic tale of high school life, while providing some of the cast such as Broderick and Witherspoon to play against type. Needless to say this is one vision of high school which rings more than a little true, without feeling the need to resort to fantasy Esq. Visions of what Hollywood perceives High school life to be like and makes an especially refreshing change to what the Disney machine would have us believe High school to be like, while also reminding us that corruption in politics clearly exists at any level.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A History of Violence

Title: A History of Violence
Director: David Cronenberg
Released: 2005
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk

Plot: Tom (Mortensen) a mild mannered diner owner living in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana who after foiling an attempted robbery finds himself becoming a local celebrity. However despite his attempts to return to a normal life, he instead finds himself and his family being stalked by a scarred gangster (Harris) who insists that Tom is not who he says he is.

Review:  Despite being known for his love of body horror on which he’d built his reputation, it was clear when this film was released that Cronenberg was keen to move on and explore different themes and ideas, than his cornerstones of mutation, disease and infection which had shape nearly all his previous films. However starting with the much overlooked “Spider” and followed by this film it was clear that he had turned a corner in his career and arguably for the better, Cronenberg perhaps realising that he’d really pushed his body horror obsessions as far as he could.

This however is not to mean that he has lost any of his edge as he opens with a pair of thugs checking out of their motel, only to tease out the fate of the motel clerk and manager, while the pair banter back and forth between themselves. In fact I was surprised to find this film more visceral than I remembered with the central diner heist quickly turning nasty before reaching its gruesome payoff while we also early on get treated to a graphic oral sex scene and clumsy cheerleader roleplay between Tom and his wife which will prove a tender comparison to the rough stairwell sex they have when *Spoilers alert* Tom’s former life is revealed.

This film also marks the first of three films he has to date made with Viggo Mortensen with the other two being the spiritual sequel to this film “Eastern Promises” and his Jung / Freud biopic “A Dangerous Method”. It’s clear though from this first collaboration that the two certainly work well together as Mortensen believably plays both sides of his character first as the mild mannered and soft spoken family man and later as his sadistic and violent gangster personality which he has been hiding all these years from his wife and family.

Despite being based on the graphic novel of the same name, released through DC Comics “Vertigo” imprint, the film actually improves on the source material by focusing on the main story of Tom and the life he thought he’d escaped and in turn cutting out the heavy use of flashbacks that made up much of the original story. In doing so Cronenberg really hones in on the meat of the story, while a tight runtime keeps the action and suspense flowing, even when it takes in subplots as Tom’s eldest son having to deal with a bullying head jock, whose dislike of him comes merely from having caused him to lose a game of softball, which makes the intensity of the bullying all the more baffling. It is unclear whether Cronenberg knew the screenplay was based on a comic book, especially when he has so frequently been outspoken on his disdain for the genre perhaps making this this first and only dabble with the genre.

Here Cronenberg once again assembles a strong cast, though at time Maria Bello comes off far too wooden especially during her seduction scenes which ultimately come off more clumsy than sexy. Still this film really hinges on the performances of both Mortensen and Ed Harris who despite his heavily scared face manages to prove himself a terrifying threat even without the threat of violence as he provides the same sort of relentless torment to Tom and his family he almost manages to rival Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" only without the same prophanity riddled meltdown.

The violence throughout the film while frequently explicit is used with such reserve here, that when do get a moment of violence it remains shocking even if some of the fight scenes especially are so over the top such as the scenes in which Tom is forced to dispatch a group of gangsters threatening his family or the diner robbery. At the same time it’s clear that he’s aware of his abilities and frequently is shown trying to avoid conflict, not only to avoid revealing his previous life, but also you feel to avoid tapping into the side of him he might not be able to supress again, especially if we are to believe any of the tales we are told of his former life one which he is clearly clean to put behind him making the final scenes all the more poignant as he puts his guns to earth and cleanses himself of his sins in the lake before returning to his family, the last scene showing the family wanting to move on while the events of the film are clearly still hanging over them as they try to present the image of a happy family.

This is easily one of Cronenberg’s most accessible films to date especially when it plays more like a traditional thriller while here he shows himself more than capable of producing interesting and engaging films without body horror, while being carried by some strong performances especially by Mortensen who plays both sides of Tom perfectly and making this a thriller with real bite.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015


Title:  Videodrome
Director:  David Cronenberg
Released: 1983
Starring: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman

Plot: Max Renn (Woods) the president of CIVIC-TV, a station which specialises in sleazy and sensationalistic programing is frustrated in his attempts to find his next big program. However when he stumbles across “Videodrome” a show which seemingly shows real torture and murder with his attempts to discover its origin leading him to discover a much larger global conspiracy.


Review:  Released during a golden period for Cronenberg, who with “The Brood” had finally found his groove after his hit and miss early experiments with body horror (Rabid / Shivers) aswell as the much overlooked “Fast Company”. Here though he would give us some of his most memorable work as he continues his obsession with bodily mutation, disease and infection which this time comes via the voyeuristic violence of “Videodrome”, whose side effects soon see James Woods undergoing a number of bizarre transformations including most memorably turning his torso into a gooey VHS slot.

Working from a script developed from his childhood memories of picking up signals from New York, when the channels in his native Canada had gone off the air while at the same time constantly worried that he might stumble across like Max something that he should see. At the same time basing the films “Civic TV” on “CityTV” which had a reputation for showing soft-core pornography which it branded “Baby-blue films”; Here he truly crafts a strange tale to say the least but at the same time for all its mutations it’s also a surprisingly straightforward story and one which is carried by Woods moral devoid TV Station president who we open to him buying an underground pornography series from a pair of Japanese businessmen and despite it featuring a hidden dildo, he has seemingly grown board by the usual sleaze and grime he has been peddling on the station until now. Needless to say it only makes it only the more believable that he would see the staged snuff TV that Videodrome offers as the future of TV.

Of course being a Cronenberg film it was never going to be enough for Max to head off on a journey into the film making underground to find out the source of this mysterious broadcast which becomes a source of obsession to Max. Instead Cronenberg turns it into something much more interesting as the broadcast comes with the ability to cause vivid hallucinations and meaning that we get such memorable scenes as Max seemingly pushing himself into his television aswell as the aforementioned chest VHS sequence which the film has become renowned for.

While it’s easy to get distracted with all the visual flair being thrown around, but outside of the big set pieces it’s still a journey filled with fascinating characters such as Debbie Harry’s sadomasochistic psychiatrist who finds the vicious images of “Videodrome” the ultimate turn on. We also meet Professor Brian O’Blivion (Creley) who chooses to only appear via video recordings than in person and while it’s true that some moments such as the homeless mission were those attending engage are forced to continually watch TV’S but like so many of these Cronenbergisms which seem so grounded in reality we don’t ever question them no matter how random things seem to get, with the switches between the reality and dreams being so fluid here, that you genuinely reach a point where you stop questioning what is happening and instead just enjoy the ride.

While this film might have its share of gooey moments this is certainly one of his more accessible films making it the perfect starting place for newcomers, while still containing plenty to enjoy for the converted while this is unquestionably fearless film making at its best.
Hail to the new flesh!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

American Teen

Title:  American Teen
Director: Nanette Burstein
Released: 2008
Plot: Documentary following five students from different social groups through their final school year

Seemingly based on “The Breakfast Club” idea of high school hierocracy the documentary looks at five students, each belonging to a different social group while following them through their final year of school as they deal with various issues such as dating and falling out with friends all while trying to figure out what they want to do after school. The documentary switching between its five subjects which include
  • Hannah AKA the “Rebel” – A self-confessed outsider thanks to her liberal views which don’t tend to go down to well in the small-town conservative culture of Warsaw. She distracts herself with her art, music and writing while dreaming of leaving for San Francisco to work in films.
  • Colin AKA the “Jock” – Star of the school basketball team, he is looking to impress the visiting college scouts in order to get a scholarship for college.
  • Megan AKA the “Princess” – The most popular student and queen bee, who aims to follow in her family legacy by getting into the University of Notre Dame, while more than willing to do anything to maintain her position in the social order.
  • Mitch AKA the “Heartthrob  - One of the popular kids and a teammate of Colin’s on the basketball team.
  • Jake AKA the “Geek” – the bottom of the social pile Jake’s prefers to loose himself in video games and the school band, while his introverted nature means he finds it difficult to make friends. His main goal is to find a date for prom or at least a girlfriend.
Directed by Nanette Burstein whose no doubt best known for directing the boxing documentary “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” which charted the life and career of film producer Robert Evans. Here though she casts her net in a pretty wide sweep as she attempts to craft a picture of final year students at school, while attempting to avoid the usual pitfalls of just focusing on the popular kids which as someone who school life saw them spending their time lurking in the no man’s land between being popular and the bottom of the social pile, I can assure you that school was far from the happiest of times which most of these documentaries like to proclaim.
Originally Burstein reviewed  more than 100 potential schools for the film of which 10 agreed to participate and which after interviewing seniors at these school, ultimately decided on Warsaw Community High school in Warsaw, Indianna which has the distinction of being the “Orthopaedic Capital of the World” and seemingly little else. This certainly gives it an interesting angle in how eager the subjects are to escape the quiet town life.
Each of the segments is led solely by their subjects as they go about their hobbies or general day to day school life. Hannah comes off especially well with this technique especially with her outspoken nature with Jake coming a close second even if his sections were he’s addressing the camera directly tend to drift into romantic fantasies.  Megan on the other hand largely ignores the camera and generally acts like she is in her own episode of “The Hills” outside of a segment in the third quarter were she talks about her older sister who committed suicide in a rare moment of vulnerability especially when she’s spent most of the documentary seemingly not caring what affect her actions have on anyone unless it in some way benefits her, as she spray paints the word “Fag” on a rival’s house after they overulled her idea for prom while making sure that she e-mail’s the whole school an ill-advised topless selfie sent to her by mistake. Colin meanwhile comes off as an uncharismatic oaf who showboating attitude is currently leading the school’s basketball team into its worse season ever. Perhaps because of this the majority of his footage is kept to him playing, or hanging around his Elvis impersonator dad who is keen to see his son enlisted in the Army rather than resting on his skills as a basketball player.
The real draw here through are ironically the least popular kids in school, with Hannah trying to find her place as she defiantly walks her own line, while coming close to failing the year after skipping school following a break up with her long term boyfriend.  Jake equally makes for an engaging subject as he goes through his own series of failed attempts at romance which are almost as crushing to watch as they are for him to endure, so when he is taken on a drunken bender with his brother you can’t help but root for him finally having something work out well for him.
Unquestionably due to covering these major groups the end result is a slightly disjointed ride with certain subjects coming off better than others, while Mitch really comes off as an afterthought seeing how he is the least featured of the five with his only real presence in the film coming from the brief and surprising relationship he has with Hannah, before becoming arguably the worst person in the film when he breaks up with her via text message.  This lack of footage only makes it less surprising that he was left of some posters for this film.  At the same time the film has come under criticism of being staged, though I couldn’t personally tell and to be honest you’re more likely to see faker footage on reality TV than you see here. Yes it is perhaps overly dramatic is places but then wasn’t school always this way.
A flawed documentary with its mishmash of footage and hit and miss subjects, its occasional great moments tend to get lost along the way, while its animated sections prove to be more of a distraction than adding anything to the film. Ultimately its hard to see what Burstein was aiming to achieve with this documentary, especially when it plays out exactly how you'd expect it to with the rich kids and jocks get what they want, while the geeks and outsiders only get to find themselves when they escape the confines of school. Still if you want to see your school days played out with modern teens then this might be the film for you, only just don't expect any big answers as this film certainly doesn't have any.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Inside Deep Throat

Title:  Inside Deep Throat
Director:  Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Released: 2005
Plot: Documentary looking at the legacy of the legendry porn film “Deep Throat”

Review:  Back in the early part of the 00’s someone had the bright idea of re-releasing several legendry porn films such as “Debbie Does Dallas” and “Behind The Green Door” aswell as “Deep Throat” perhaps hoping to cash in on the kitsch value that “Boogie Nights” had suddenly brought to the 70’s porn industry.  At the same time all of these films back on their original release had for one reason or another managed to break away from their grindhouse roots and achieved mainstream success aswell.

Here Bailey and Barbato attempt to track the making of the film and the fallout from its release which sparked a censorship battle amongst tales of on set abuse and mob involvement, while the film grossed $600 million and going on to become one of the most profitable movies of all time. The pair of course are no stranger to underground and cult subjects having previously given us documentaries on Rent Boys and Michael Alig’s Club Kids (Party Monster) which would also lead them to a misguided stab at a feature film. Here through they once again prove themselves most comfortable with the documentary format even if the end result provides us with more of a timeline for the film than anything regarding an in depth look at its production.

 As for the film in question, “Deep Throat” was directed by former hairdresser Gerald Damiano, who after hearing his clients talking about sex while in his salon, he quickly came up with the idea of making a porn film which had crossover appeal, while advertising the film for couples rather than the usual target audience for such films and inturn ushering in an era of “pornographic chic”. The film itself working with the truly bizarre plot in which Linda Lovelace discovers that her clitoris is located in her throat and meaning that she can only find sexual satisfaction by performing the titular act on various men as she embarks on a quest to find the one she wishes to marry.

Narrated by Dennis Hopper and made up of new and archive interviews and news footage, here they attempt to provide a full picture of the mythos and legacy of this film, though considering the interviews which they get here which include the films director Gerard Damiano aswell as Lovelace’s co-star Harry Reems the documentary far too often doesn’t take full advantage of the subjects that it has access to instead making the bizarre choice it would seem of trying to include as many interviewees as possible, many being little more than social commentators such as John Waters (who as to be expected provides a large number of great insights here) and more randomly Gore Vidal through to adult magazine legends Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. While all of these interviews certainly bring something to the film its frustratingly at the expense of the film exploring certain aspects of the film or its fallout which are skated over or hinted at.

Unfortunately due to the timing of the documentary Lovelace had sadly died in an automobile accident leaving only her mother, sister and daughter to provide largely bitter commentary on Lovelace's experiences with the film, much like the archive footage included which falls more towards the years when she was being used to boost the careers of several popular feminists who were using her to condemn the film. Sadly as we see here she would be left penniless much like both Gerard Damiano and Harry Reems who would never see any of the films profits, while Lovelace as we find out in the film would equally see nothing for her new found celebrity condemning the film. Reems meanwhile despite his cheery attitude we see here, equally struggled to find work after the film was release, with the scandal surrounding it leaving him blacklisted and sinking into alcoholism and depression.

What the documentary does do right however is to provide us with a rare historic importance for a porn film as its popularity which not only saw it used as a pop culture reference but was seen as a sign that explicit sex would be carried over into mainstream film making, even as the film was being banned and seized in every city it was being shown in as part of raids carried out by the FBI under the orders of the Nixon administration, whose moral censorship would essentially only serve to fuel the porn industry as it maintained audiences curiosity while also one which ironically would only help to further to the popularity of the film.

While it would have certainly have been more interesting if a focus on the making of the film had been covered in more detail, especially with Lovelace making numerous claims of abusive during filming, some of which we hear through the archive footage, but are frustratingly never explored further outside of footage of her bruises, supposedly from this abuse being highlighted to little effect. As such the documentary is left feeling like its only telling you half the story, especially when so much focus is given to the prosecution of the film is given.  At the same time while this might not be their strongest film to date it is still a fascinating watch and one whose energy keeps it moving at a quick place even if your left feeling that you haven’t heard the whole story.
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