January 30th, 2014

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: KEANU REEVES

Early in his career, it looked like Keanu Reeves would be typecast as a surfer dude with his performances in Point Break and the Bill and Ted movies. Although he tried to break out from these kinds of roles in films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dangerous Liaisons, he looked a bit lost in those costume dramas. Luckily, with action flicks like Speed and the Matrix, he found his stride and became a Legend of the Silver Screen. Today, we’ll be taking a look at three of Keanu’s films.

First up is…

CHAIN REACTION (1996) ** ½

Chain Reaction is one of those movies where all involved were trying to give the people what they wanted to see. Keanu Reeves had just made Speed and figured, “Well, that was a big hit, maybe I should make another action flick”. Director Andrew Davis had just directed The Fugitive and thought, “Well, that was a big hit, maybe I should make another innocent-man-on-the-run movie.” And as a result, the film feels like it was made out of obligation; not inspiration.

Keanu Reeves is a machinist doing work on green energy. His machine figures out a way to sustain energy by extracting hydrogen from water (or something) and is the apple of his think-tank’s eye. When the leader of the science project tries to give away the formula, he is killed and the blame is put on Keanu. Naturally, Keanu goes on the lam and tries to clear his name.

Chain Reaction is a decent enough action/thriller. Like I said, it feels like everyone involved tried to make a good movie, but weren’t exactly working at the top of their game. Of course, it is unfair to compare the film to Reeves’ Speed or Davis’ The Fugitive, but the comparisons are unavoidable. The film does have one terrific explosion early on that is almost worth the price of admission.

While Reeves and Davis were mining familiar territory here, the flick was novel in that it featured the first time Morgan Freeman played the Seemingly Nice Guy That’s Really a Bad Guy (which he’d later play in films such as Hard Rain and Wanted). And it also features the initial appearance of Rachel Weisz playing her trademark Brainy but Sexy Chick. Plus, we also have Fred Ward in the mix as a crusty Fed, which is always a plus.

Reeves and Weisz later reteamed for Constantine.

Next up is…

THE WATCHER (2000) ** ½

James Spader stars as a detective who suffers from crippling migraines and eats lots of Vietnamese food. (Although, if he’s such a great detective, he’d know that the MSG in the Vietnamese food was probably the culprit.) He’s pursuing a serial killer (Keanu Reeves) who obsessively stalks and brutally kills young women. The killer toys with Spader, calls him in the middle of the night, and sends him pictures of his potential victims. Of course, he makes it personal when he kidnaps Spader’s therapist (Marisa Tomei) and threatens to kill her.

The Watcher gives us a great James Spader performance. If you’re a fan of The Spade Man, you will be ecstatic at the level of smugness and cockiness you’d expect from him. His scenes with Marisa Tomei are particularly full of Spaderiness. It’s one of his all-time best performances.

And it has to be said that Keanu is well-cast as the psycho. This is one of the occasions where Reeves’ blank stare and laid back persona enhances the character he’s playing. In something like Dracula, he looks a bit lost, but as a sketchy serial killer, his monotone delivery works to his advantage. (Apparently, he was duped into starring in the film; which makes me question if he was actually even trying. But the fact that he gives most of his dialogue the flattest line reading possible certainly adds to the emotionless character.)

The Watcher is a by and large solid police procedural thriller. It has some great passages (mostly whenever Spader is front and center), but director Joe Charbanic goes overboard with the slow motion and camcorder POV during the stalking scenes. They wear out their welcome fast, help dissolve much of the film’s tension, and are bound to give you a headache. No wonder Spader’s character suffered from migraines!

And our final Reeves flick is…

STREET KINGS (2008) **

Keanu Reeves stars as an Alcoholic Cop on the Edge That Plays by His Own Rules who is part of an elite unit ran by Forest Whitaker. After rescuing two young girls from some Korean slavers, his former partner (Terry Crews) snitches on him for not following proper procedure. When his partner is murdered, Keanu is implicated in the crime. A nosy Internal Affairs officer (Hugh Laurie) comes snooping around asking questions, which complicates matters. With the help of a young cop (Chris Evans), Reeves seeks out to find the real killers and gets caught up in a miasma of corruption, betrayal, and dirty dealings.

Street Kings was directed by David (Harsh Times) Ayer, and like most of his films, it follows characters that blur the line between cop and crook. But the overriding sense of déjà vu lessens the impact. We’ve seen this all before and done much better so there’s really no reason to see it again.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. The opening scene of Reeves’ shooting it out with a Korean gang is pretty good, but the flick gets increasingly muddled as it goes along. Even worse, it gets increasingly boring too. The film goes progressively downhill after the introduction of Reeves’ new goodie two shoes partner late in the game. Speaking of The Game, at least this section of the flick allows you a chance to see Neo beat the snot out of The Game with the phone book; so there’s that.

Reeves is on autopilot for the most part. He’s good in the early scenes where he’s drinking and puking, but somewhere along the way he just becomes another dull clichéd character. The decent supporting cast help somewhat. Jay Mohr (sporting a hilarious moustache) is pretty good as one of Reeves’ partners and Laurie (sporting a weird bald spot) has an odd energy about him. But none of them are able to elevate the material from the been-there-done-that pile.

Join us next time when our Legend will be Robert De Niro.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) *** ½

Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) used to be a child star in vaudeville while her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) watched idly in the wings. In later years, Blanche became a big movie star, a fact that Jane resented. One night, Jane runs Blanche over in her car, paralyzing her from the waist down. Years later, they live together in a rundown house. Jane is basically Blanche’s servant, which she resents even more than the whole fame thing. Jane is also becoming more and more mentally unstable. She becomes increasingly cruel to Blanche, serving her dead animals at dinner and locking her up in her room. When Jane has a gentleman caller (Victor Buono), she thinks that Blanche will get in the way of their happiness. It all eventually ends in madness and murder.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a great female-driven horror movie that is full of shocks and fun. The two leads are incredible together and you can see their off screen disdain for one another seeping through; which adds to their characters. Crawford is really terrific as the mousy, put-upon Blanche who still puts up with her sister’s behavior out of guilt and obligation. But it is Davis who steals the picture as the nutty Jane. Dressed in crazy costumes and caked in ghoulish make-up, Baby Jane Hudson is one of the most underrated psychos in screen history.

It’s hard not to be unsettled during the scenes of an aging Davis dressed like a child and singing deliriously. (It reminds me of the Lady in the Radiator scenes in Eraserhead.) The scene in which she imagines her doll singing to her is especially creepy. And it’s amazing how much suspense director Robert Aldrich is able to wring out of the scenario. (Stephen King pretty much ripped off a lot of this flick for Misery.) The scene with the rat is a classic, but the murder of the maid is something Hitchcock would’ve been proud of.

The film does have its flaws. Some (but not all) of the interludes with Victor Buono don’t work. And once the action leaves the house in the third act, the flick suffers. (The scenes on the beach go on way too long.) But despite a few quibbles, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a real winner.

Aldrich later reteamed with Davis for Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Next week’s Clayton Classic: One Touch of Venus.

SYFY-PALOOZA PART 2: SHARKS

SHARKNADO (2013) **

When The Asylum’s Sharknado premiered on The SyFy Channel last summer, it became an instant cult classic. Viewers went nuts on social media during the broadcast and the film became one of the most talked about movies of the year. I wanted to wait until the hype died down a bit before I got around to watching it so I could view the flick with a little bit more objectivity.

Of course, only I would want to watch a movie called Sharknado objectively.

A tornado appears over the ocean and draws a school of sharks inside its funnel cloud. The storm hits Santa Monica and sharks start falling from the sky. The storm causes massive flooding, and of course, the flood waters are filled with sharks. A bar owner (Ian Ziering) goes inland to save his estranged wife (Tara Reid) and various other people along the way.

Ian Ziering and Tara Ried are the names in the cast, but it is the CGI sharks that are the real stars. And it has to be said that the opening scene of people standing in front of a greenscreened CGI whirlwind while CGI sharks whip by taking a bite out of them is pretty funny. The scenes of sharks landing on the Santa Monica pier and trying to eat people are less so. And the scenes of the cast members dodging sharks in the flooded streets of Los Angeles are decidedly ho-hum. I did like the bit where a shark landed in the cement of the Chinese Theatre though.

Sharknado plays like a hybrid of a disaster movie and a shark attack flick. Interestingly enough, the disaster movie scenes are more fun than the shark attack scenes. The effects for the ferris wheel rolling down the Santa Monica pier are surprisingly well done and the scene where our heroes have to avoid the windswept letters of the Hollywood sign is rather great.

The flick tries to take things as serious as possible (or as serious as a movie called Sharknado can be). Therein lays the problem. Had the film really went for broke on the goofiness (as it did in the opening scenes), we could’ve had a real winner on our hands. The finale where Ziering’s kid tries to fly into the sharknado and blow it up is rather disappointing too and the nods to Jaws fall flat. Overall, Sharknado isn’t awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it just never really lives up to its title.

Still, if you ever wanted to see a former star of Beverly Hills 90210 fight his way out of inside a shark using a chainsaw, then this movie is for you.

GHOST SHARK (2013) ***

Ghost Shark was directed by SyFy Channel vet Griff Furst. I’ll never forget the time he trolled my review of Lake Placid 3 and called me a “punk ass” for giving it a negative review. I guess he missed my semi-favorable reviews for I Am Omega and Swamp Shark. At any rate, I’m not one to hold a grudge. I only bring that up because his film Ghost Shark is one of the nuttiest things I’ve seen in a long time (and if you are reading this Mr. Furst; that is indeed a compliment).

Some rednecks kill a great white shark while night fishing. Minutes later, the glowing ghost of the shark leaps out of the water and eats them. Since this Ghost Shark has supernatural powers, it can appear out of the water anywhere at any time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a swimming pool or a bucket of water or a mud puddle, it can still jump out and get you.

The shark attack scenes are pretty nuts. This thing looks like a shark-shaped lightsaber and the way it leaps out and unexpectedly chomps down on its victims is a hoot and a holler. The hilarious thing about Ghost Shark is that the shark attacks can happen anywhere at any time as long as water is present. That means any time chicks in bikinis hold a charity car wash or a plumber fixes some leaky pipes or kids play on a Slip n’ Slide; shit is bound to hit the fan.

I do take issue with the scenes involving the annoying teenagers. None of the young cast comes close to matching the charisma and screen presence as Ghost Shark. Richard (The Sword and the Sorcerer) Moll is pretty good as the town drunk though.

Whenever things threaten to get dull, something extremely crazy will happen to keep you smiling. My favorite moment comes when a guy gets a drink from a water cooler and Ghost Shark kills him from the inside out. Seeing the dude’s head split in half while a ghostly great white emerges is a sight I don’t think I’ll forget for some time.

Oh, and did I mention the scene where Ghost Shark attacks a guy while he’s on the toilet?

Sharknado is a bit more polished than Ghost Shark and features better acting. However, I have to give the edge to Ghost Shark for its zany premise. (Yes, it’s zanier than a tornado full of sharks.) I’m not sure if I’d rank it up there with Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy or Mansquito as one of the all-time great SyFy Channel movies (it kinda runs out of steam before the finale), but it’s definitely better than most.

Best line: “The car was hot waxed with the entrails of the girl washing it!”

SYFY-PALOOZA: THE FINAL CHAPTER: CROCS AND GATORS

ROBO CROC (2013) * ½

A crocodile named Stella breathes in some experimental stuff and becomes part robot. Its eyes become red and give the croc a heads up display like The Terminator that helps her hunt its prey. She eats her handler and escapes the zoo and goes on a rampage in a nearby water park.

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose’s Corin Nemec stars as the wisecracking zookeeper hero. He’s become something of a mainstay at the SyFy Channel over the years. (As he’s aged, he sorta resembles Mike Nelson from Mystery Science Theater 3000.) But as far as Corin Nemec SyFy vehicles go, Robo Croc isn’t a patch on the great Mansquito.

Over the course of SyFy-Palooza, we’ve been asked to believe some pretty stupid things. We’ve seen killer Tasmanian Devils, tornados filled with sharks, and the murderous ghost of a great white. Robo Croc brings us to new heights (make that lows) of stupidity. In particular, the heads-up display for the crocodile was supremely stupid. Whenever Stella approaches a potential victim, the heads up display flashes “Prey Detected”. Now my question is, “How in the hell can the crocodile read?”

I’m sorry to bring those kinds of logistical sticking points to a SyFy Channel movie, but inquiring minds want to know.

In one scene, a guy is attacked for wearing Crocs. That’s about as inventive as this thing gets. I hate those goofy-looking shoes as much as the next guy, but it’s not exactly what I would call funny. We also get a scene where Robo Croc jumps up and kills a helicopter; which to me just seems like a callback to the airplane scene in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Robo Croc is from start to finish a rather dreary affair. It moves at a snail’s pace and is full of What-the-Fuck-Did-My-Agent-Sign-Me-Up-For performances. (Dee Wallace in particular looks pretty bored.) The CGI effects are horrible too; especially once the croc becomes completely robotic. At least the effects in Sharknado and Ghost Shark were fairly decent (for a SyFy Channel joint; that is).

Talk about a Robo Crock of Shit.

RAGIN CAJUN REDNECK GATORS (2013) * ½

Some Cajun gator poachers make a bad batch of moonshine using some blue chemical they found on the internet. They dump the shine into the swamp and it turns the gators into giant mutant killers with red necks. The rival Cajun clan that lives just across the river kills a mutant gator and eats it. Pretty soon, they all turn into mutant gators too.

You know, for a movie about were-alligators, Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators isn’t a whole lot of fun. The acting is pretty bad and the overdone Cajun accents will grate on your nerves. The pacing moves at a crawl, which pretty much negates the zaniness of the plot.

The CGI gator effects aren’t bad. Most of the CGI monsters in these SyFy Channel movies look like they came out of a PlayStation 3 game. The monsters in this one look like they came out of a PlayStation 4 game. I know that’s not saying much, but oh well.

Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators was directed by Griff Furst. His directional output for the SyFy Channel is a bit spotty. Usually whenever he directs a movie about mutant sharks (like Swamp Shark and Ghost Shark), it’s pretty decent. But when he makes a movie about mutant gators and crocs (Lake Placid 3 and this), they aren’t very good. Maybe next time, just stick to sharks, buddy.

Note: Furst is the son of Stephen Furst, who played Flounder in Animal House. I don’t know about you, but “Son of Flounder” would make for a great SyFy movie title.

AKA: Alligator Alley.

That wraps things up for SyFy-Palooza. Since next month is February, I’ll be doing the requisite Skinamax-A-Palooza marathon. You know, because of Valentine’s Day and shit. Who says romance is dead?

THE CANYONS (2013) ** ½

The story of the drama going on behind the scenes of The Canyons is more interesting than the film itself. The off screen trials and tribulations of the flick are well documented, so you really don’t need me to tell you all about it. Besides, at the end of the day, a movie lives and dies by its own merits and not the backstage craziness surrounding its creation.

Porn star James Deen stars as a movie producer who has an open relationship with his girlfriend, played by Lindsay Lohan. She’s still in love with her ex-boyfriend though and meets with him in secret. Deen finds out about it and has them followed. The more Deen learns about Lohan’s affairs, the more insane he gets. It all ends in sex, betrayal, blackmail, and murder.

The Canyons is an interesting, if unsuccessful collaboration between director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis. Like most of Ellis’ characters, everyone in The Canyons is rich, bisexual, and vapid. And as a fan of Ellis, that’s all right by me. However, the plot is just about as vapid as the characters. (I did like how most of the characters are always on their cell phone though.)

The film often resembles a soap opera, with occasional sex scenes, orgies, and explicit dick-tugging. Imagine watching an episode of The Hills (there are a lot of static two-shot dialogue scenes) spliced with Skinamax. That’s not exactly the worst thing in my book. It’s just a shame that there really isn’t much to the movie. And even when the plot thickens in the last reel, it’s nothing that really grabs you.

If anything, The Canyons exists to show you Lindsay Lohan naked. And she has some pretty good nude scenes too. Her performance isn’t that bad either. And Deen proves that he might have a decent career ahead of him if he ever wants to jump into the mainstream.

THE WILD TEAM (1985) * ½

Umberto (Cannibal Ferox) Lenzi directed this dull and uneventful action flick. It’s far from the man’s best work. It plays like a lame knockoff of The A-Team or something. The action is poorly choreographed and the acting is bland. Plus, there’s nothing especially “wild” about the team either. I definitely wasn’t wild about the movie, that’s for sure.

A revolutionary’s son gets kidnapped at Carnival. The USA assembles a team to go in and rescue him. Once the revolutionary is killed, the team is left behind enemy lines to complete their mission without any outside aid.

The members of the team are fairly unremarkable and inconsequential. The one rugged guy is the leader, there’s a chick that is a demolitions expert, and a gratuitously Italian guy provides the painfully unfunny comic relief. There’s also a few other guys on the team, but I’ve thankfully banished them from my mind.

Because it’s Umberto Lenzi at the helm, there are a lot of scenes of people stopping their march through the jungle to check out random stock footage. We also have to contend with scenes of women and children being gunned down (it’s done in pretty poor taste) and hang gliding scenes that seemingly go on forever. Not to mention the fact that the annoying kid hangs around getting on everyone’s nerves for half the flick.

The Wild Team moves at a snail’s pace, but if you stick with it, you’ll get to see a lot of bamboo huts blow up. There are also a couple of big explosions during the finale, and we also get a decent arrow through the neck scene in there as well. And while none of this comes close to salvaging the movie, it’s enough to save it from getting a One Star rating.

AKA: Thunder Squad.

Here’s Cool Target’s review of the flick: http://cooltarget.blogspot.com/2011/04/thunder-squad.html