Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pirates of Silcon Valley + American Mary + Dancin' - It's On!

(TV-14, Turner Network Television, 95 mins., broadcast premiere date: June 20, 1999)

A made-for-TNT, Y2k-era precursor to The Founder given how ‘80s survivor Anthony Michael Hall reinvents the passive yet playful geek persona honed from his John Hughes partnerships while assimilating the malevolence of his best known role of the 1990s, the varsity bully from Edward Scissorhands. Channeling Microsoft mastermind Bill Gates, Hall is as awkward as ever ("You must have really great bandwidth" is his pathetic seduction line at a roller rink) but resting on a hot wellspring of aggressive subterfuge. Gates is even introduced as the new Big Brother for another seething entrepreneur, Apple's Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle), who begins by addressing the camera in the manner of Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc. It is revealed that Jobs is speaking to Ridley Scott (J.G. Hertzler), the director of Apple's Orwellian Super Bowl ad.

Writer/director Martyn Burke splits his superficial if fairly agreeable docudrama (based on Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine's Fire in the Valley) between the evenly competitive Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, their prickly, isolating ascendancies mitigated by good-humored layman's testimony from their respective right hands, moral compass Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and morally deficient Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio, the second Bender to be playing foil to Hall). The Berkeley-educated Jobs goes from acid-tripping boy guru to capitalist emperor, blithely ruthless in matters both personal and professional. The hapless geek standing in Jobs' shadow, Harvard grad Gates hustles to outsmart IBM (a common enemy) and ultimately Apple in the same way Jobs himself got the best of Xerox. As Pirates of Silicon Valley progresses, their power dynamic shifts, the once-charismatic Jobs ("Better to be a pirate than join the Navy") now a wayward cipher and Gates the clever parasite holding the royal flush.

Burke energizes the starboard-storming ironies with wit (Hall's delirious comic energy negotiating with Albuquerque factory man Gailard Sartain and a couple of airport ticket counters) and a couple solid musical cues (The Guess Who and The Police, not so much the overworked Moody Blues). But whatever psychological acumen he could've afforded the script instead falls upon his actors, expert impersonators of the impersonal. The unflattering portrayal of Steve Jobs as a wannabe Jim Morrison does enable the saucer-eyed Wyle to overact cockily like he was soliciting membership in the Brat Pack rather than detonating his fame as Dr. John Carter. Even in his subtler moments, which hint at a lost optimism amidst the rampant petulance, Wyle isn't as entertainingly heated as Hall. Gates gets the loot and Jobs walks the plank, where Martyn Burke awaits to chew the flesh clean off his bones.

(R, XLrator Media, 103 mins., limited release date: May 31, 2013)

Canadian ravens Jen & Sylvia Soska, a.k.a. the Twisted Twins, pull themselves up by their jet black back-straps for this heady extreme horror follow-up to 2009's Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Surgeon-in-training Mary Mason (Katharine "Ginger Snaps" Isabelle) goes from suturing literal turkeys to figurative ones when, having fallen behind on her student loan payments, she stumbles upon the lucrative "body modification" craze. A man-size Betty Boop named Beatress (Tristan Risk) cajoles Mary into performing an operation on her equally plasticine friend, Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), who yearns for the asexual physicality of a Barbie doll. That success leads Mary to cultivate a hardcore portfolio as well as enact revenge on the side after her med school professors take brutal advantage of her.

The Soska Sisters simultaneously pervert and subvert the mad doctor trope by virtue of Isabelle's poised performance and the outlandish subculture they advocate. Once she cuts herself off from the debasing rigors of academia, Mary finds a bizarre renewal of agency in the inundation of misfits who willfully request split tongues, implanted horns and, in the case of the Soskas themselves as German siblings, an elaborate act of Siamese oneness. Isabelle's busty physique is frequently on show (specifically to taunt Antonio Cupo's desensitized strip club owner), a Kraut "slasher" jovially namedrops Mengele and the gleaming array of saws are laid out fetishistically (Eli Roth gets a dedication, although this is more perceptible in the manner of a Sam Raimi/Wes Craven showdown). Still, Mary is a unique anti-heroine in a genre which frowns upon objective female identification outside of the whimpering, hysterical Final Girl U.

Mary's criminal nature does result in some routine torture and milquetoast investigation (the only male voice of reason is a kind-hearted bouncer who values Mary's knack for transmogrification), and the third act suffers from copious plot strands which fail to take. "Ave Maria" is thematically co-opted (it sure beats the silly "Bloody Mary" tag the clientele bestows upon Mary), yet American Mary sputters on its operatic take-off despite Katharine Isabelle's final moment of gory pathos. But exploitation movie sketchiness is inherently a bitch to overcome. At their wickedest and funniest, the Soska Sisters are ennobled by the proud legacies of David Cronenberg or Clive Barker. The extreme horror genre could stand for more kinky reveries in the style of those veteran Nightbreeders, and the Soskas show potential for transcending grisly provocation in favor of psychological squeamishness and gleefully outré dark comedy. And unlike Eli Roth, who as of 2017 has regressed to self-parody (The Green Inferno) while the Soskas settled for plug-in proficiency (See No Evil 2, Hellevator), there's still potential in Jen & Sylvia.

(PG. Medallion Releasing, 89 mins., theatrical release date: October 30, 2015)

"Want a pickle?" Schlock City's doddering Davids have nothing left to offer compared to the Twisted Twins. Dancin' - It's On! unites David Winters (Thrashin') and late screenwriter David A. Prior (Deadly Prey) for a youthsploitation danceateria that was miraculously declared the Worst Film of 2015 by Brad "The Cinema Snob" Jones, beating out such faith-based madness as Old Fashioned and War Room. It's also a vehicle for two victors of TV's Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance?, paired off a la Justin & Kelly as romantic leads who make the amateur Latino youths of Boaz Davidson's Salsa look like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Never you mind the vapid, derivative plot; like Salsa and From Justin to Kelly, there's nothing to feel here.

Jennifer August (an awkward Julianne Hough replicant named Witney Carson) is Winters' millennial Baby, grudgingly spending her summer vacation in infomercial-scenic Panama City, where even the dump trucks are painted hot pink, to visit her estranged father (Gary Daniels) at his Hit Parade Hotel. The staff includes a sad-faced mime for a shuttle accessory, desk clerks who quote Shakespeare while holding the room key to 2B, some Dr. Seuss refugee on stilts, and "The Captain" (Russell Ferguson), a dreadlocked doorman who pops, locks and drops bon mots. There's even impersonators of Rhett and Scarlett so that Jenn can namedrop "her favorite movie" with less enthusiasm than she demonstrates on the floor, which I'm afraid is terminal. Wandering the lobby, she meets both Danny (Matt Marr), the weaselly bellhop whom her father has arranged to be her guide/boyfriend, and Ken (Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, that's not my head hitting the keyboard), the dishwashing dreamer who captures her fancy.

Advertised/pawned off as a successor to Dirty Dancing, High School Musical and The Karate Kid(?), what Captain A-Rab (who takes a supporting role as an instructor with a Tragic Past) hath truly wrought is a less accomplished mockbuster of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo! Say what you will about Sam Firstenberg's Crayola-bright gift to rubberneckers, but it was far more reverent of musical tradition, coaxed an infectious community theatre spirit and didn't lean on chintzy wipe transitions. The niceties of film-making have so completely eluded Winters to the degree where one worries if he's in the throes of Alzheimer's: "guerilla" camera angles from yards away made sense if you stole shots from the Cote d'Azur (as in The Last Horror Film), but it's death for a dance movie. With a minor exception for the hammy Ferguson as the Magical Negro, every other performance stiffs colossally, transparently ADR-ed dialogue sounding listless enough to match the forgettable faces. And not a single cliché sleeps all the way up to the Big Competition complete with Go Ahead, Kiss Her!

Save for some slick, silly moves in the opening credits when Ken is putting a literal spin on his busboy vocation, even the dancing is beyond perfunctory. They're diluted even further by cut-rate, montage-minded pop, some voiced by Harry Styles and Katy Perry imitators, and all boasting laughably on-the-nose lyrics ("I'll sleep with a snake in my bed/Just to prove I love ya"). If ever a party needed to be crashed by Tommy Hook and the Daggers, it's Dancin' - It's On! It's garbage.

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