March 29, 2024

DARKGAME Has Been Played Before (and that's okay)

DARKGAME (Blu-ray)
2024 / 100 min
Available at
Review by Mr. Bonnie😽

If you have never seen or don’t recall the movie, Untraceable, it’s a 2008 thriller about a serial killer who kills his victims on the internet. The more viewers that visit the site, the faster these people die. Taking place in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, it’s a repeated race against time to find this guy, who also taunts the FBI team assigned to the case. While no classic, I thought the film was better than its box office numbers and critical consensus suggested.

The writers of DarkGame must have thought so, too, because not only does it feature a very similar premise, the story also takes place in Portland, Oregon. One big difference here - besides the budget and star power - is that this killer chooses his victims at random, whereas the one in Untraceable was driven by revenge. That aspect renders this one a bit more disturbing, though the death scenes - while pretty graphic - aren’t nearly as drawn-out or sadistic.

The unnamed antagonist (Andrew P. Stephen) is certainly sadistic, though. Never seen without a mask, he hosts a dark web “game show” called Russian Roulette, where “contestants” are forced to participate in various gruesome contests while viewers bet on the outcome. The highest wagerer gets to choose how the loser will die. Meanwhile, brooding Portland cop Ben (Ed Westwick) and his squad desperately (and repeatedly) try to trace his location and stop him, which proves to be very difficult. And of course, once the killer learns Ben is heading the investigation, he makes things personal.

Spring Training takes a dark turn.
The narrative shifts between Ben’s investigation (while clashing with the FBI) and Katia (Natalya Tsvetkova), one of the kidnapped contestants imprisoned in a room with several others who are waiting for the right moment to fight back and escape. While not particularly original, DarkGame is fast-paced and manages to create a lot of genuine tension in certain scenes. It also features a compelling, cryptically funny antagonist. Performed with gusto by Stephens, he’s the best part of the film. The remaining cast bring earnestness to their characters, most of whom seem lifted from other movies, right down to the boneheaded FBI agent “taking over the case.” 

The film is efficiently directed by Howard J. Ford, who’s kinda made a career out of making movies that never win awards for originality, but are generally well made and entertaining in the moment. Similarly, DarkGame is a decent race-against-time thriller on a limited budget. The door is even left open for a sequel, which I wouldn’t be opposed to.

VIOLENT ROAD and the Small Wages of Fear

Starring Brian Keith, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Merry Anders, Sean Garrison, Dick Foran, Arthur Batanides, Perry Lopez. Directed by Howard W. Koch. (85 min).


If you haven't seen Violent Road (which is quite likely), this essay contains a spoiler.

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has been one of my favorite films since I was 13 and first caught it at the Southgate Quad as the bottom half of a double feature. Released at a time when the movie industry was increasingly focused on high concept blockbusters with wide audience appeal, the film was crushed under the wheels of the Star Wars juggernaut, coming and going nearly unnoticed by everyone except for the two studios (Universal and Paramount) who footed the bill for its bloated budget.  

With hindsight, it was easy to see why. Who the hell wanted to endure a grimy, depressing flick about criminals on a 10 mile-an-hour suicide mission for an $8000 payday when you could catch Luke Skywalker rescue a princess and defeat an empire? And trucks loaded with explosives certainly doesn’t sound as fun as the Bandit driving cases of Coors across the state line. Hell, the only reason I actually saw Sorcerer was because it was the only movie at the Southgate I hadn't yet watched. But I fell in love with every aspect of the film…the dark tone, stunning imagery, gritty aesthetic, nerve-jangling set-pieces, Tangerine Dream’s haunting score and a team of morally ambiguous characters played by a great international cast led by Roy Scheider. 

Best of all was the premise…four fugitives from various parts of the world who end up in a godforsaken poverty-ravaged South American village where escape means buying your way out. When an American oil platform explodes 200 miles away, the only way to kill the raging fire is to blow it out with dynamite. Unfortunately, the only cases available are so old and unstable that the slightest jolt will cause them to explode. Worse yet, the only way to get them there is to drive a couple of trucks through mountains, swamps and jungle. With nothing left to lose, these four desperate fugitives take the job.

Another meeting that could've been an email.
Sorcerer has been rediscovered and reassessed over the years, becoming something of a cult film. Though its initial failure exacerbated Friedkin’s career descent into mediocrity (from which he never truly recovered, in my opinion), it’s now widely considered one of his best. Today, there are cinephiles and critics worldwide who appreciate Sorcerer for the neglected masterpiece it really is. But I knew it all along.

What I didn’t know - for many years - was that my beloved Sorcerer was actually a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 French classic, The Wages of Fear. It’s an excellent film, similarly bleak with heaping helpings of cynicism thrown in. Still, it took some time for me to warm up to it and I still prefer Sorcerer’s aesthetic, tension and unsavory characters (perhaps because it’s the version I grew up on).

Another thing I didn’t know, until just recently, was that Sorcerer wasn’t even the first remake of The Wages of Fear. That honor actually goes to a little-seen film called Violent Road

Released in 1958 and directed by Howard W. Koch (probably best remembered for producing Airplane! and some Oscar broadcasts), Violent Road doesn’t officially acknowledge Clouzot’s film or Georges Arnaud’s original novel (just like Akira Kurosawa was never credited for inspiring The Magnificent Seven). However, it features the exact same premise and plot, though with less creative ambition and a lower budget. Based on the cast, perfunctory direction and conveniently commutable Southern California locations, it’s obvious Warner Brothers simply wanted a quick & dirty potboiler. 

There are a few minor differences between this one and The Wages of Fear. Instead of two trucks and four guys transporting unstable nitroglycerin, six people are hired by Cyclone Rockets to drive three trucks carrying explosive & corrosive fuel components to a new factory. Barred from using the main highways, they’re forced to make the two day trek over treacherous desert mountain backroads.

"No one goes shirtless but me."
Leading the team is Mitch Barton (Brian Keith), an experienced career trucker who needs the work after running afoul of his former boss. His crew includes down-and-out war veteran Frank ‘Sarge’ Miller (Dick Foran), reckless young race car driver Ken Farley (Sean Garrison), chronic gambler Ben (Arthur Batanides), resourceful mechanic Manuelo (Perry Lopez) and Cyclone’s rocket fuel expert George Lawrence (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). As with The Wages of Fear, there’s a beautiful woman waiting for Mitch when (and if) the job is done...Carrie (Merry Anders), with whom he recently had a whirlwind fling. With the possible exception of Sarge, none of these characters convey a similar sense of desperation to those in Wages and Sorcerer. There’s a big payday, for sure, but at no point does the job seem like a last option for any of them.

Nor does the overall journey feel as perilous. There are no scenes as tension-filled as the jaw-dropping bridge sequence in Sorcerer or the decaying turning platform in Wages. At no point does the trek seem utterly hopeless, with potentially insurmountable obstacles prompting the characters to consider giving up in despair. There’s danger, of course, but for much of the trip, these guys don’t even drive like their payload could blow them sky high at any moment. The only time Violent Road comes close to achieving the same level of suspense as Wages and Sorcerer is when the brakes in Mitch’s truck give out as he’s barrelling down the mountain. The movie even has the audacity to tack on an upbeat ending.

But while Violent Road is never particularly thrilling or memorable, it’s well made on a low budget and certainly watchable, with solid overall performances. Keith, in particular, is enjoyably stoic, studly and cynical. I think it might be especially interesting to those who’ve already seen The Wages of Fear or Sorcerer. This film never approaches the technical or thematic artistry of either - nor does it really try - but if nothing else, Violent Road earnestly adheres to the same basic premise and structure.

March 28, 2024

BORN TO FLY: China's Top Gun

BORN TO FLY (Blu-ray)
2023 / 128 min
Review by Pepper the Poopy😼

Born to Fly is China’s answer to Top Gun, with a heaping helping of nationalism thrown in for good measure. Let’s not hold the latter against it, since this is far from the first movie to trumpet its own country while vilifying others.

This is most blatantly depicted in the prologue, which has enemy jets buzzing into Chinese territory while deftly dodging China’s outdated aircraft. Though it’s never stated outright, the pilots are obviously Americans, cartoonishly trash-talking the good guys with taunts like “We can come & go whenever we want.” These faceless foes are the closest thing Born to Fly has to antagonists, serving the same narrative purpose as the anonymous “Jerrys” in countless World War II epics. Only there’s no apparent war going on here…just a couple of pilots being dicks.

So it’s a little ironic that the rest of the film liberally cops from one of the most distinctively “American” movies of the last 50 years. Only instead of the best-of-the-best competing for bragging rights, they’re jockeying to be test pilots for stealthy new aircraft that’ll shame their enemies. Born to Fly has its own Maverick in the form of Lei (Wang Yibo), a rebellious hot-shot pilot who goes through the paces of wowing his superiors, getting humbled, doing some soul searching and bouncing back to glory. He’s occasionally thwarted by the movie’s Iceman, Deng Fang (Yu Shi), his biggest rival. In the downtime, there’s even a female doctor who becomes personally invested in Lei (though these two never actually hop in the sack together).

"Dude, where'd you learn to clap?"
The rest of the narrative follows the Top Gun playbook step by step, right down to the climactic aerial showdown with their enemies, who appear to be the same asshole pilots who bullied them in the prologue. Okay, so Born to Fly is laughably derivative…but is it entertaining? Yeah, sometimes. Though one will certainly question these aircraft’s ability to turn on a dime, the flight scenes are generally good and one sequence involving the attempt to land after a bloody bird-strike is fairly suspenseful. The subplot where Lei is attempting to perfect anti-spin parachutes is also kind of interesting. 

Aside from Lei, characterization is minimal and most of the drama outside of the cockpit is uninvolving. Even the pilots’ commander, Zhang (Hu Jun), essentially exists to evoke national pride and create poignancy when he dies. That ain’t really a spoiler, folks. Whenever a movie like this introduces a supporting character’s family, that guy’s a goner. Elsewhere, Born to Fly is at-least a half-hour overlong, but there’s some amusement to be found in its strict adherence to the Top Gun formula (minus a catchy Kenny Loggins tune), along with a few decent action scenes.

March 26, 2024

IN SEARCH OF THE LAST ACTION HEROES: A Guided Tour Of Stuff That Goes Boom

2019 / 141 min
Available at
Review by Stinky the Destroyer😺

In Search of the Last Action Heroes is an enjoyable retrospective documentary on the history of the action genre. But instead of a study by film scholars or writers, this is mostly presented from the perspective of those who’ve worked in the genre on both sides of the camera, though casual viewers may not be familiar with most of them.

Hence, we get commentary and anecdotes from the likes of actors Ronny Cox, Eric Roberts, Scott Atkins, Cynthia Rothrock, Bill Duke, Jeanette Goldstein, Vernon Wells, Alex Winter and Michael Jai White, as well as filmmakers Shane Black, Boaz Davidson, Paul Verhoeven, Graham Yost, Steven E. de Souza, Mark L. Lester and Mario Kassar. A slew of others are interviewed, all of whom discuss the films, actors or directors that influenced the genre, as well as some they were involved in making. A few authors and critics also offer their insights.

The genre’s history is more-or-less presented chronologically. One might quip that everything prior to the 1960s is virtually ignored, but really, this was the decade where action itself was beginning to be a prominent component in films. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen were sort of the Mount Rushmore of action heroes throughout the 1970s and basically serve as this film’s starting point. 

With his first Commando residual check, Steven E. de Souza bought that hat.
Not surprisingly, a major chunk of the film covers the 1980s. As with horror, that decade is generally considered the “golden age” of action as we know it today. Not only were budgets, explosions and stunts much bigger, the VHS boom resulted in countless direct-to-video films and second-tier stars lining rental shelves. 

Accompanying the commentary are hundreds of film clips dating from the 1970s through the 2000s. Most of the usual suspects are featured and, unsurprisingly, influential classics like Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Terminator are discussed in more detail than others, as are certain actors who made action their bread & butter. Not a lot of this is particularly revelatory, but as a guided tour of stuff that goes boom, In Search of the Last Action Heroes is an entertaining journey through time.

March 25, 2024

WEDNESDAY - SEASON 1: Not All Together Ooky

2023 / 480 min (8 Episodes)
Review by Pepper the Poopy😽

It seems like the first season of Netflix’s überpopular Wednesday is getting a physical media release a lot faster than many of the platform’s other shows. Perhaps it’s a matter of striking while the iron is hot, since I can’t imagine the basic premise has much of a shelf life. 

Not that Wednesday is a bad show. Quite the contrary. Despite aiming for a demographic far younger than yours truly, these eight episodes were more entertaining than I expected. It feels a little more padded out than necessary - creating an entire season when a single movie could have sufficed - but when focused on the droll, cryptic world view of its titular character (wonderfully played by Jenna Ortega), it’s highly amusing. It’s also the only time the show resembles anything related to the original Addams Family.

Season 1 is basically a murder mystery, with Wednesday forced to attend Nevermore Academy, a school for “outcasts” such as vampires, werewolves, sirens, telepaths, gorgons and shapeshifters. Gomez & Morticia’s alma mater, the school has long been viewed with suspicion and disdain by the “normals” in the nearby town of Jericho. When a vicious beast begins to murder people, Wednesday, who’s as brilliant as she is morbid, becomes obsessed with solving the mystery, which reveals connections with the town’s dark past, as well as her own family history.

While shooting Season One, Jenna works on Season Two.
Along the way are numerous subplots, mostly related to Wednesday’s classmates (and one episode where she clears her dad of a decades-old murder rap). The suggested love triangle with her and a couple of hunks is perfunctory teen soap fodder, but the relationship between Wednesday and roommate Enid (Emma Myers) is both humorous and charming. Overall, the show is less interesting when things turn serious, which is often. It also grows increasingly derivative, with episodes conceptually and aesthetically similar to the likes of Harry Potter, Scooby-Doo (even referenced in one episode), Ghostbusters, Carrie, Twilight, director Tim Burton's own work and, of course, any CW drama you’d care to name.

Other Addams Family members show up throughout the show, with Thing being quite funny as Wednesday’s sidekick, while the appearance of Luis Guzman & Catherine Zeta-Jones as Gomez & Morticia are essentially glorified cameos. Wednesday is all about its main character. As such, the show is fairly entertaining, at least for these episodes. It ends with the usual set-up for a second season (which has already been announced), but how long can Wednesday’s creepy, kooky, all together ooky persona carry an entire show?

March 24, 2024

POLAR RESCUE Doesn't Deserve Donnie

2022 / 103 min
Review by Mr. Bonnie😾

Ever since starting this site and reviewing more Asian action films than I care to remember, I’ve become a pretty big fan of Donnie Yen. Not only is he a consummate modern era ass-kicker, he’s got the acting chops to back up the fighting skills. It’s probably a big reason he’s been tapped for quite a few American films of late (though Hollywood still hasn't had the balls to give him a lead role).

Conversely, 2022’s Polar Rescue is the first film - of those I’ve seen, anyway - that is totally devoid of Yen’s badassery. He actually gets his ass handed to him on a few occasions. As De, he’s simply a desperate dad trying to find his eight-year-old son, who’s gone missing in the snowy mountains during a storm. As such, he nails the role and is easily the best part of the film. In fact, Yen is the only reason it might - might - be worth watching at all.

The rest of Polar Rescue is undone by a messy narrative, clunky dialogue and a slew of irritating, unpleasant characters…beginning with De’s own son. The opening set-up firmly establishes the kid as an obnoxious little shit before conveniently disappearing. And it gets worse. When De and wife Xuan (Cecilia Han) go for help, the police almost immediately badger & berate him for wanting to be involved in the search. In fact, as the rescue effort grows increasingly perilous, damn near everyone blames De for endangering them in the first place. How dare he hold out hope that his boy is still alive!

When you make the effort to hide but no one seeks you.
Ridiculously, authorities and the media focus more on De’s shortcomings as a dad than the rescue itself. Even Xuan gets into the act, asking point blank if he ever loved his son at all, to which De doesn’t reply. Instead, we get flashbacks showing him as an indifferent father, thus making the movie’s lone sympathetic character someone not entirely likable. By this time, the story has grown repetitive and interminable, despite a late effort to liven things up with an avalanche.

A shame, really, because Yen’s performance is excellent, deftly conveying the frustration, determination and desperation any parent would feel in this situation…all without delivering a single body blow or roundhouse kick. Unfortunately, Polar Rescue repeatedly sabotages his efforts, resulting in a movie that isn’t worthy of such dedication.

March 22, 2024

THE CONTENDER: The White House Has A Bowling Alley?

2000 / 125 min
Available at
Review by Mr. Bonnie😺

Allow me to recap my favorite scene from The Contender

President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) must select a new vice president because the previous one just died. He passes on the most popular choice, Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who just made heroic headlines by attempting to rescue a woman trapped in a submerged car. He prefers Laine Billings (Joan Allen), a woman senator.

When Laine and her husband arrive in Washington for a meeting, the President happens to be rolling a few frames in the White House bowling alley. 

First of all, I didn’t know the White House even had a bowling alley. Second…is this scene intended as an homage to Bridges and his greatest role, The Dude in The Big Lebowski? Probably not, but I like to think so. It’s also kinda fun to imagine this is ultimately what became of The Dude once those pesky George H.W. Bush years were over.

The president abides.
Anyway, Bridges is the best part of the movie, which is about the opposition Laine faces from congress during the approval hearings led by conniving Republican chairman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman). With help from ambitious young senator Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), Runyon digs up dirt on Laine from her wild college days and leaks it to the media during the hearings. Riding his moral high horse, which includes condemning her stance on abortion rights, Runyon’s true agenda is clearing the way for Hathaway to be selected.

Overall, The Contender tells an interesting story and features a lot of excellent performances. Both Bridges & Allen were nominated for Oscars, but Sam Elliott as Chief-of-Staff Kermit Newman is just as noteworthy. And what more can be said about Oldman? He’s deliciously hateful here as a (very) thinly veiled example of the agenda-driven Republicans we regularly see on TV, tearing apart rivals over personal indiscretions that have nothing to do with one’s actual job performance.

In fact, we’ve seen a lot of this stuff play itself out in the real world. It’s no accident this film was released amidst a similar White House scandal and the trivial hearings related to it. Not a hell of a lot has changed in Washington or the media since then. Some could argue it's even worse.  Thus, The Contender may not seem quite as provocative as it did 24 years ago, playing more like a summative analysis than cautionary commentary. Still, it’s an entertaining film with one shocking revelation: There’s a bowling alley in the White House.