Month: January 2014

Dare Daniel Classics

index*Originally published on The Barnesyard blog in September 2005.

BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER (2002; Dir.: Wych Kaosayananda)

GRADE: D

By Daniel Barnes

The first Dare Daniel challenge was no easy feat — just saying the title out loud is believed to cause a new form of brain cancer. “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” is a shallow spy thriller utterly devoid of humanity that substitutes action scenes, shitty techno music, train explosions, and Lucy Liu slinking around in a black jumpsuit for plot and character. Despite all of this, the movie is terrible.

The story, such as it is, revolves around an ex-spy named Ecks (he is played by Antonio Banderas, so activate the Subtitles option on your DVD player at your own discretion) who is lured back into the game when he learns that the wife he thought was murdered is still alive. The secret lies with Sever, another rogue spy, who has just kidnapped the son of an enigmatic spy kingpin in revenge for the murder of her own child. As Ecks gets closer to Sever, he learns that the kingpin masterminded both deaths, and that the kidnapped child is really his own son.

Yes, “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” is another in a line of films with the word “vs.” in the title in which the word’s implied confrontation between the titular protagonists turns out to be largely irrelevant to the story (more, they often share the same third enemy). Why is this? Why tease? That would be like billing a football game as Patriots vs. Dolphins, then having the Patriots and Dolphins join forces midway through the second quarter to defeat the Atlanta Falcons.

“Ballistic” is certainly one of the more dehumanized movies I’ve ever seen. It seems to begin 20 minutes into the story, with no development, setting, or coherence, and continues as such for the rest of the film. When both Ecks and then Sever flash back to their deceased loved ones, they only see an anonymous image of a car blowing up . Not a face, or eyes, or a smile, or laughter…just an exploding automobile.  It’s the only thing that passes for an inner life here.

Liu’s character is supposed to be some sort of kung fu superspy badass, but the fight scenes are so slow and measured they look like “Kill Bill” rehearsal footage. When she’s not slap-fighting, Liu is slinking from shadow to shadow in the aforementioned black jumpsuit.  She also has precious few lines, leaving Banderas to carry the load of the dialogue (and what a burdensome load it is!). This made me wonder if she was too abashed to speak on camera, a la Vampira in “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, which would make Antonio Banderas the Tor Johnson of “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever”.

Eventually, there is a showdown in one of those abandoned industrial sites that action filmmakers love so much, as all three spies start blowing up trains, so many that I momentarily thought I was hallucinating).

After a few more explosions, Banderas is reunited with his wife and son, and Lucy Liu activates some sort of freaky robot bug to give the kingpin a heart attack.

Finally, there is  scene of reconciliation between Ecks and Sever over the beautiful Vancouver skyline.  “Ballistic” deserves a modicum of credit for originality in that it’s the only film I’ve ever seen that was obviously shot in Canada on the cheap that didn’t try to pretend it was set in an American city. There are so many aerial shots of the city and references to Victoria Island, it would be almost impossible to fake.

In many respects, “Ballistic” is the epitome of dumbed-down international filmmaking (and you’ll be happy to know it was co-produced by Showtime After Dark auteur Andrew Stevens) — get a couple of names for the posters, cast an international cast for tax breaks and overseas financing, explode enough things to fill a 90-second preview, get some house music for the soundtrack, hire a music video director, shoot it in Canada, skip the plot and call it a movie.  Tie it into the crappiest-looking video game ever created, and you’re done.

Dare Daniel – Rhinestone

121607rhinestoneRHINESTONE (1984; Dir.: Bob Clark)

GRADE: D+

By Daniel Barnes

*Originally published on the Movie City USA blog on August 22, 2007.

Sylvester Stallone will be difficult to explain to our kids and grandkids. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s a Napoleonic, steroidal, barely talented musclehead who has attained a mystifyingly high level of movie stardom – that phenomenon has been around since the silent era and continues to this day (see: Rock, The).

I mean it in the sense that from 1976 through the early 1980’s, Sylvester Stallone was viewed in popular quarters as a powerful young cinematic voice. That will be difficult to explain to the wee ones in the same way that the words “Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni” or “starring Dane Cook” are sure to baffle future generations.

Stallone wrote the screenplay to Rocky, and in legendary fashion, rejected lucrative studio offers to produce it without him in the lead role.  Of course, he got the part, the film was a huge success, and Stallone was Oscar-nominated not only for the script but also for Best Actor.  That led to a slew of late 1970’s/early 1980’s writer/director/star efforts, but also to something much more sinister – on almost every film he appeared in between Rocky and Cliffhanger, he got a screenplay or co-screenplay credit.

Here are the films on which Stallone received a screenplay credit:

-F.I.S.T.
-Paradise Alley
-Staying Alive
(also directed)
-Rocky I-VI
(directed: II-IV, VI)
-Rambo I-III
-Rhinestone
-Cobra
-Over the Top
-Cliffhanger
-Driven

That’s 17 onscreen credits (and he’s writing/directing Rambo IV, don’t you know), and many other Stallone films are assumed to have uncredited rewrites by their star. But this is one of the fascinating paradoxes of Stallone – he is cinema’s great quasi-intellectual, an assault of intimidation, willpower, ten-cent words, and assumed sexuality. He rode that early critical validation for decades, and always possessed enough clout to insist on his own rewrites, despite any noticeable artistic or (eventually) financial returns.

Another of Stallone’s great paradoxes is that his entire persona was built off of the Rocky character – a rough-around-the-edges, down-on-his-luck, violent-but-charming thug who perseveres against impossible odds through the force of his character to prove himself and regain his self-respect.  Not only was this plot repeated verbatim in Rocky’s I-VI, but it was also the theme of Rambo’s I-III, Cliffhanger, Over the Top, Nighthawks, Copland, Paradise Alley, Daylight, and…oh, let’s just say every movie Stallone ever made.

The paradox here is that Stallone was believable in this role up to and including the first Rocky – after that, Stallone was no longer the struggling actor but rather Stallone the international superstar, and re-hashing the archetype became increasingly ridiculous and obnoxious. He wasn’t the common man anymore, and was frequently repulsive in his attempt to play the charming roughneck. But along with Schwarzenegger, Gibson, and few others, Stallone was a new breed of international movie star, and as such he was able to bully projects to his liking, usually mangling them into his own false image.

This brings us to Bob Clark’s 1984 film Rhinestone, starring Stallone and Dolly Parton. It was “co-written” by Phil Alden Robinson, although he was apparently aghast at the drastic changes Stallone made to his script. Clark and Robinson are two of the more mercurial talents in Hollywood – they have credits both great and terrible, as well as sporadic periods of unemployment.   Whatever else Clark and Robinson are, they’re not stupid, and yet Rhinestone is a stupid, stupid movie, with most of the blame falling directly on Stallone.

The premise is flimsy but workable – a struggling country singer (Dolly Parton, in a succession of skin-tight, plunged-neckline gowns) in New York tries to get out of her contract to a lecherous club owner (Ron Leibman, making it work somehow) by betting that she can turn a schlub taxi driver (Stallone) into a successful singing cowboy.  It’s a lame set-up, but no more fabricated than your average 1930’s, let’s-put-on-a-show musical.  In fact, a reinvented brand of that genre had come into vogue in the 1980’s with the success of Fame and Flashdance, and the greenlight for Rhinestone was no doubt a product of that popularity.

The big problem with Rhinestone is that it should be a Dolly Parton vehicle also featuring Stallone, but after the first 10 minutes, it becomes a Stallone vehicle also featuring Dolly. Several times throughout the film, Dolly pulls out an acoustic guitar and starts to sing, and they’re the best moments of the film. Yet she never gets more than 20 seconds into any song before Stallone wanders into the room and interrupts her, as though he can’t stand to see her take even a little bit of his spotlight away. Stallone mugs mercilessly throughout the film, which we are supposed to find funny and adorable.

After a half hour of Asian stereotypes, New Yawker stereotypes, and Italian stereotypes, Parton drags Stallone back to her Tennessee farm to tutor him in the ways of hillbilly stereotypes. Does this lead to a series of overcoming-the-odds montages? Ooh, I’ll never give it away! However, I will say this – Stallone wears a succession of funny hats, practices a series of funny walks, and sings A LOT of Eagles-lite country songs, including one particularly unmemorable number entitled “Drinkenstein”.

The Tennessee sequences are miserable, and we keep waiting for the action to return to New York, where at least Leibman’s sleazy club owner has a neon fire in his living room. An actor like Travolta could have pulled this movie off (and at that time, Travolta’s career was bleak enough that he would have accepted a second-banana part to Parton), but Stallone is hapless both as a comedian and as a singer, even when we’re intended to believe that he has attained a measure of competence. Romance blooms between Dolly and Stallone, which is both baffling and pretty depressing – we get the impression that Parton is barely concealing her real-life repulsion.

Eventually, Stallone and Parton wow the locals in Tennessee, pledge undying love to each other, and head back to New York for their inevitable triumph…when suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, Dolly is forced to pull off a plot device that is insanely contrived, even compared to what we’ve already seen.  Hours before Stallone is set to perform in front of a hostile audience, without any provocation at all, Dolly humiliates Stallone in front of dozens of his friends and his entire family. She calls him a robot, a “mudpie”, a polluter, and an amateur, then threatens to go sleep with the lecherous club owner.

Not only is this sudden assault nonsensical, but it’s completely out of character – up to this point, Dolly’s wise but sassy Jake had been incredibly supportive of Stallone’s monstrous Nick (not to mention that her entire future rested on him successfully performing in front of a hostile crowd). Did someone decide that the movie needed be fifteen minutes longer? At any rate, fifteen minutes is all this scene adds to Rhinestone.

Of course, they break up and make up, and finally return to the stage, where Stallone wins over a crowd surreptitiously stacked with hecklers (because he’s so good!) and performs three…count ‘em, three songs in a row, ending with the expected triumphant 1980’s freeze frame. On the Cinematic Narcissism Scale, this sequence falls just above Kevin Spacey in K-Pax and just below Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea.

Bless her heart, Dolly does what she can with the role, but an overabundance of both bad dialogue (“You’re thinking of shacking up with the guru of doo-doo?” is a standout) and preening male co-stars keep getting in the way. Parton has only 5 real film credits to her name, and I feel like we got cheated out of this one.  She manages to sneak in a couple of good lines, the best being “Freddie, there are two kinds of people in this world, and you ain’t one of them.” I don’t intend to argue that a properly cast Rhinestone would have made a great movie, but with Stallone in charge, it’s not even passable.

The History of ESFS

snobsThe E Street Film Society (ESFS) was founded in January 2002 by two upstart film geeks, Daniel Barnes and Mike Dub, who wanted to create a forum in which to view and discuss cinema.  Every few weeks, ESFS would meet in a small basement apartment on E Street in Sacramento and screen their own film fests.  For each festival, they curated and screened three films that were connected to each other by director, star, genre, year, or a common theme.

Tensions in the E Street Film Society ran high from the beginning, and during an ill-advised screening of Silent Running, dissent erupted among ESFS members over the artistic direction of the group.  In a lavish publicity stunt, Mike Dub vowed to leave the group and take every member with him, eventually fleeing back to Chicago alone under a cloud of shame.

A few years later, Daniel Barnes reclaimed the ESFS brand and re-booted the film society as a movie blog.  Successful for several years, the online version of ESFS eventually struggled under the weight of legal issues brought about by Dub, who demanded residuals from the blog (despite the fact that it had never made any money).  Some still believe that the real reason for the lawsuits was not Dub’s ignominious departure from the society, but rather Barnes’ 2006 declaration that “Dwyane Wade is the new Michael Jordan.”  While Dub failed to secure any financial compensation from the blog, he did succeed in shutting it down.

After five years of silent antipathy between the two founding members of ESFS, they were reunited when, unbeknownst to each other, they both agreed to appear on the 2013 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon.  During their tearful on-air reunion, Barnes and Dub decided that it was time to bring back ESFS yet again.  This time, they have pledged to set aside their personal feelings and lead ESFS with professionalism, integrity and respect.  They will not allow themselves to succumb to shallow, bickering punditry.  Their newly minted collaboration is a rising star that will forever shine brightly in the evening sky.

As long as they don’t completely screw it up.

My Declaration of Principles

hqdefault1)      The canon is a dry erase board, not a stone tablet.

2)      Nostalgia is the enemy of taste.

3)      Entrenchment is the enemy of reason.

4)      Criticism without passion is a waste of time.

5)      Cinema should be approached with a spirit of adventure.

6)      A critic devoid of humility is a tyrant.

7)      Blind spots demand to be illuminated.

8)      Constructive dialogue and disagreements should be respected above all else.

9)      All eras, genres, cultures, and budgets should be approached with open minds and hearts.

10)      My goal is to be the critic I always wanted to read.

Citizen Kane - Declaration of Principles kane31

About Daniel Barnes

the-man-who-came-to-dinner-monty-woolley-1942Daniel Barnes is a film critic for the Sacramento News and Review and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.  His work has appeared in the Colorado Springs IndependentSan Antonio Current, and Monterey County Weekly, among other print and online publications.  He began blogging about films in 2005 on his websites The Barnesyard, Movie City USA, and the original online iteration of E Street Film Society.  Married since 2008, Daniel and his wife Darcey also run a beer blog called His and Hers Beer Notes that has been profiled in numerous Sacramento publications, and their work is featured regularly on the EatDrinkFilm website.  Daniel’s favorite films are generally over-stylized and pretentious while promoting a warped morality, and his favorite pastimes include shushing movie theater talkers and that’s it.

About Mike Dub

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Mike Dub was born and mostly raised in Chicago. He lived in Sacramento during his late teens and early twenties, during which time he became cofounder of the E Street Film Society before leaving again for Chicago. After graduating from Columbia College Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in Film, he went on to earn a Masters Degree in Media Arts from the University of Arizona. He says his favorite films include Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, and The Maltese Falcon, but the movie he has seen more times than any other is The Lost Boys. Also, his real name is Mike Wegrzyn.