Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Just Like Honey

From its title, to its premise, to all the marketing for Cocaine Bear, it felt safe to assume that even though it was coming from a major studio, this was going to be some fairly wild shit. As it turns out, those expectations of an off the rails movie were wrong. Despite its eponymous beast's penchant for mauling, Cocaine Bear is a too-slick effort that's dangerously close to being cuddly. 

I don't doubt that Cocaine Bear will work just fine for some. It's not a bad movie (although, honestly, it might have helped if it had been) but I suspect the majority reaction to Cocaine Bear, especially from exploitation fans, will be disappointment. Yes, there is a bear that does a conspicuous amount of coke and that's all well and good but for a movie with this title and this premise, Cocaine Bear proves to be curiously square. Director Elizabeth Banks, working from a screenplay by Jimmy Warden, manages to make a movie about a coked out apex predator feel like polished studio product. There is no bite to this movie at all. 

There's one sequence about halfway in, when a pair of ambulance workers get involved in the bear's rampage, that offers the hope that, ok, now things are kicking into that higher gear we've been waiting for, but once that sequence is over, things go right back to being very safe n' straight laced. Before they even started filming Cocaine Bear, someone should have realized that the script and the title didn't match. Yes, there is a cocaine bear so technically the title fits but when you call a movie Cocaine Bear and you know that's what going to compel everyone to buy a ticket, you've got to make damn sure you deliver on that title. 

Here's the thing: going into Cocaine Bear, I did not want to have to follow multiple tedious storylines. First up, you've got single mom Sari (Keri Russell) who discovers that her young daughter DeeDee (Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school in order to venture to a nearby waterfall with a friend so Sari has to go looking for her. You also have a park ranger (Margo Martindale) whose planned day in the outdoors with her crush (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is interrupted by Sari's need for help. Then you also have Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who's been sent to the area by his boss, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta), to recover the lost duffel bags of coke that are laying unattended across the Georgia woods. Accompanying Daveed is Syd's son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who is still morose over the recent death of his wife due to cancer. 

Once they arrive at the grounds of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Daveed and Eddie run into a trio of trouble making delinquents who have come across the coke and they rope one of them into taking them to where they've stashed one of the bags. Oh, and there's also another plot thread about a cop named Bob (Isiash Whitlock Jr.) who has trekked out to the area hoping to nail Syd and, by the way, Bob has a newly adopted dog he left behind in the care of one of his fellow officers and that's something that we're supposed to care about. After reading all this, do you see what the problem with Cocaine Bear is? Definitely after writing it, I feel a renewed sense of exasperation at this movie. I mean, come on, where's the fucking Cocaine Bear in all of this? 

Once they settled on the title of Cocaine Bear, the main mission of this movie should have been to put that fucking thing in as much of the movie as they could. The trim 95 minute running time of Cocaine Bear should have made for a lean, fast moving Animal Attack! movie along the lines of 2019's Crawl but instead those 95 minutes are mostly squandered on meandering storylines that serve to make the movie feel about a half hour longer than it actually is. Worst of all, the main storyline of Sari searching for DeeDee doesn't even involve the bear for most of the time. There's an encounter with the bear that Sari survives early on but then it moves on and Sari and DeeDee's buddy Henry (Christian Convery) then proceed to go looking for DeeDee and every time we return to check in on their progress, we know that they're not in any danger whatsoever. In this movie, every character should be in constant danger of being mauled. Otherwise, why the hell am I watching? 

If there's such a thing as a family friendly movie about a coked up bear, this is it. As bloody as it occasionally gets, Cocaine Bear never stops feeling cozy and conventional. This is a movie where even the drug dudes and forest wandering hooligans are basically nice, non-malicious people (save for Syd, who is given a legitimate aura of danger by Ray Liotta). I mean, Banks and co. can't even bring themselves to demonize the Cocaine Bear. Sure, it's not the bear's fault someone dropped a bunch of coke from a plane into its forest so you can't say the bear is bad but at the same time, it's a staple of the man vs. animal subgenre that the animal must be destroyed. You have to root for its ultimate annihilation. The bear in 1975's Grizzly wasn't a bad bear. It wasn't evil. But yet you didn't want to see 18 feet of towering fury just be allowed to peacefully wander back into the woods at the end. That would be unsatisfying. What you want is to see it exploded into chunks of blood and fur by a fucking bazooka. You don't want Jaws to just swim away at the end of the movie, you want Roy Scheider to fire off that shot at the air tank in Jaws' mouth and obliterate it. Bottom line: you want gratification. You want to see an animal go on a killing spree, murder many people, and then be spectacularly destroyed. The makers of Cocaine Bear did not get that memo. 


While there's something to be said for subverting expectations and going against the grain, I don't think that applies here. Cocaine Bear needed to straight up bring the exploitation movies goods and it doesn't quite do that. Yeah, I'll still take a squeaky clean coked up bear movie over no coked up bear movie but at the same time, I feel I must register my disappointment. Even with its PG-13 rating, M3GAN delivered more effectively as an exploitation movie than the R-rated Cocaine Bear does so I think it's worth noting that it falls short. 

Cocaine Bear has got some decent splatter but the go for the throat attitude isn't there. It'll still do well thanks to Universal's killer marketing campaign but my hope is that whatever gonzo movies that might get made in response to its success will be inspired to push the envelope and show some real B-movie gusto. Don't promise people a Cocaine Bear only to hand them a Teddy Bear instead. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Roll the Bones: Army of Darkness at 30

Nerd culture has become established as the predominant culture today with what used to be strictly cult stuff now being mainstream fare (when M.O.D.O.K., in all his weirdness, is featured in the #1 movie in the country, you know you're living in a full on nerd world) but in 1993, things were not so groovy and the chances were that unless you were a regular Fangoria reader, you did not know or care that this new movie called Army of Darkness was actually the second sequel to The Evil Dead. To this day I continue to find it wild that the Evil Dead movies were considered so cult and their audience so insignificant that Universal didn't even think it was worth calling attention to Army's sequel status in its marketing and instead chose to promote it as a stand alone movie. In certain circles, though, Army qualified as a massive event. 

Seeing Army on an opening day matinee with a fellow nerd buddy of mine remains one of my favorite movie going memories. Back when I saw Evil Dead II at a midnight show in '87, the then-surprising turn it took towards comedy caught me completely off guard (in a way that delighted me) but now, of course, I felt I was going in prepared. Turns out I was blindsided all over again by the complete avalanche of Bruce Campbell one liners and the transformation of Ash into a caricature of a macho action hero, a portrayal that walked the line between sincerity and send up. After thirty years of being endlessly quoted, the lines in this movie are so familiar now but I remember losing it in the theater hearing all of them for the first time. 

If there's any one movie that made Bruce Campbell into an enduring cult icon it's this. Evil Dead 1 & 2, as great as they are, wouldn't have put Bruce over the top like this one did. It's just a bummer to stop and realize that, wait, this was the last time Bruce was the lead in a movie that had a wide theatrical release. It's fucking wrong is what that is. 

As for the debate about which ending is better, the theatrical S-Mart ending or the original "I slept too long!" ending, I think just about everyone who saw Army theatrically would go for the S-Mart ending. Even though having Ash blow it and wake up in a post apocalyptic wasteland is 100% in character, it feels too much like a retread of II's downer ending and Army needed to bring something fresher to the table. While it might have been insisted on by Universal, I love that rather than begrudgingly comply with this artistic compromise, Sam Raimi choose to go so insanely hard in embracing the studio's mandate for an upbeat ending. "Oh, you want a more commercial ending? HERE YOU GO!" 

Thirty years later, Army of Darkness still rocks. It will never not be cool that in the same year that Steven Spielberg and ILM reinvented the art of movie FX in Jurassic Park, Raimi and co. made a movie whose idea of spectacle was an army of skeleton puppets. Even better, a handful of skeleton puppets that had to be shot to look like an army. At no time is Raimi trying to sell anyone on how convincing any of this is, he's all in on the obvious artifice of it, and that's what makes it great. For me, this movie's defining moment is when in the heat of battle, someone off camera throws a skeleton into the frame at Campbell who grabs it and breaks it over his knee. The Deadites here don't explode in CGI dust when they die, they just get trashed like cheap pieces of junk. Bruce isn't facing some slick adversary like the T-1000 here. Instead, much like the retro aesthetics that Francis Ford Coppola brought to Bram Stoker's Dracula the year before, Raimi crafted Army as a tribute to the naive movie magic of an earlier, less sophisticated age. Even with all the skeletons on display, there's not a jaded bone to be found here. 

Hail to the King, baby! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Radar Love: Daredevil at 20

Twenty years ago, seeing a feature film based on a Marvel Comics character was still a novelty. Due to various legal entanglements and creative complications, Marvel's iconic stable of characters were forced to languish for years while their competition at DC dominated superhero cinema with their Superman and Batman franchises. The best Marvel could muster were various TV movies of varying quality and mostly lackluster features like The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990) that had to settle for direct-to-video releases in the US while movies like Tim Burton's Batman were busy breaking box office records. It wasn't until Stephen Norrington's Blade in 1998 that the commercial and creative fortunes of Marvel movies finally started to turn around. By the time Daredevil arrived in theaters on February 14th, 2003, it was only the sixth Marvel adaptation to be given a wide theatrical release, with two of the previous five being Blade movies and another being 1986's Howard the Duck. In comparison, this week's Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania is the 31st (!) Marvel movie just in the MCU alone. 

Having so few Marvel movies to be compared against, however, did not help Daredevil endear itself to anyone. Even though the only other big Marvel superhero movies at the time were 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man, writer and director Mark Steven Johnson's adaptation was largely dismissed as a disappointment. It definitely did not meet with the same acclaim that greeted Bryan Singer's X-Men or Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The immediate take on Daredevil was that it was, at best, ok with Ben Affleck earning a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor and Affleck himself stating years later "I hate Daredevil so much" in a New York Times interview in 2016, still stung by the movie's reception and then being on the hunt for comic book redemption as the Dark Knight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Despite all the flack he got for it, I say Affleck should be proud of his turn as Matt Murdock. He does right by Matt in this movie. Now, let me say that I don't think the passage of time has turned Daredevil into a classic. It's still an ok movie in the same way that it was ok back in 2003 but, you know, the vast majority of movies in the history of cinema are merely ok. Being ok is fine. I mean, most people are just ok and that doesn't seem to bother anyone. When Daredevil was released, I was at a lost to understand the over the top animosity towards it. For whatever reason, people decided that it - and Affleck - were going to be punching bags and that's been largely unchanged since. 

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I'd like to present to the court of public opinion my own Matt Murdock-esque defense of Daredevil. This is a movie that offers much to appreciate, particularly for comic fans. For starters, they got the costume right. Unlike Daredevil's live action debut in 1989's TV team-up with the Hulk in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Affleck's DD ditches the ninja look that Rex Smith rocked in that film and instead is very comic accurate, with red leather (rather than spandex but hey, at least the color's right!) and a horned cowl. As recently as Singer's original X-Men, the idea of dressing superheroes like their comic book counterparts had been waved off with a dismissive joke ("...What would you prefer, yellow spandex?") so even though Spidey had been garbed in his iconic red and blues in Raimi's film, there was no guarantee that DD would stick to his classic threads. If you look at the design sketches that were done for Daredevil, you can see that of the different looks that were considered, most of them were similar to Rex Smith's black clad DD. 

The fact that we got a Daredevil so authentic to the comics is a credit to director Mark Steven Johnson. Daredevil could have easily sported a much different look here. I'd even argue that it's a better costume than Charlie Cox's DD outfit. 

Besides faithfully retaining the look of DD's costume, Johnson displays his fanboy credentials throughout Daredevil. Right from the opening shots, Johnson pays homage to the cover of Daredevil Vol. 2 #3 from 1999 with artist Joe Quesada's instantly iconic image of Daredevil draped over a church cross. Several comic book legends connected to Daredevil comics, like John Romita, Gene Colan (referred to as a boxer called Gene "The Machine" Colon), and Brian Michael Bendis are name checked while DD scribes Stan Lee, Frank Miller and Kevin Smith make cameos.

Two specific scenes most pointedly represent the particular comic book sensibility Johnson brings to the movie and whether a viewer perceives these scenes as good or bad seems to determine how they feel about Daredevil overall. The first is the moment where reporter Ben Urich (a perfectly cast Joe Pantoliano) is talking to a detective at a crime scene where a thug has just been creamed by a subway train and Urich is arguing that this was the work of Daredevil. As the impatient detective pushes back with "...there is no proof that your so-called Daredevil was involved, nor that he even exists," Urich tosses a lit cigarette onto an area of the subway platform close by and the initials "DD" ignite in flames. Now, on any logical level, this is ridiculous. I mean, are we supposed to think that Matt keeps lighter fluid on him for the purpose of leaving his calling card? And if he does, how could he possibly know that anyone would be aware that there was a message waiting to be dramatically lit up? Any way you look at it, it's absurd. But yet it's also awesome in a shamelessly comic book way. It's not about logic, it's about whether it's a cool visual, and it is - especially when the scene ends with the fiery initials reflected in Urich's glasses.

The other scene is the playground fight between Matt and Elektra (Jennifer Garner). Many see this as being far too silly but I find it to be ridiculous in all the right ways. It's just so comic book-y to have these two sparring in a playground, testing each other's limits and sizing the other up. Having their romantic relationship begin in this fashion could only happen in a comic book world. Some might say it's a scene that's too light for Daredevil but I disagree. One, the history of Daredevil in the comics is not all grim and gritty. There is a playfulness that has been a part of the book from the start. And certainly, Matt is an irrepressible flirt when it comes to the ladies and he's also as cocky as they come. If there is an opportunity to a) win over a woman he finds attractive and b) a chance to show off, he's going to take it. So this scene is very much in line with the Daredevil of the comics. 

As light as that particular scene may be, there's still plenty of darkness to go around in Daredevil, both visually and thematically. While it may not deliver quite the same level of intensity of the '80s DD run from writer/artist Frank Miller that much of the movie's storyline is inspired by, for the time it was made, it does a respectable job of delivering an edgy Daredevil movie. In 2003, "dark" comic book films were relatively rare - certainly if you're talking about superhero films. It's one thing for R-rated, horror edged fare like The Crow or Blade to be dark but when it comes to PG-13 superheroes, Batman Returns (1992) was about as dark as it got then and that caught a shit ton of flack for its tone. Given that, Daredevil is admirable in how far it pushes the envelope. I mean, they do gut Elektra. 

Director Christopher Nolan would change the game for mature superhero fare with Batman Begins in 2005 but for its time, Daredevil was a noble attempt at portraying a troubled, tormented superhero. I really dig the scenes of Matt coming home after his nights as Daredevil, his body riddled with scars, popping pain pills before immersing himself in an isolation tank. If you're a comic fan and you watch those scenes, it's like, yeah, that's Daredevil (bonus points to Johnson for delivering a perfect illustration of Matt's hyper senses as he has Matt unlock his rooftop entrance by spinning three combination locks at once and stopping each one at just the right moment). 

Action wise, Daredevil really delivers with both Colin Farrell's Bullseye and Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin having solid opportunities to spar with DD. The entire end stretch of the movie is devoted to multiple battles, one after the other. There's Elektra vs. Daredevil, Elektra vs. Bullseye, Bullseye vs. Daredevil, and finally the big boss battle of Daredevil vs. Kingpin. Each one of these fights is excitingly choreographed and, whether it's Elektra slicing her sais through sheets hanging from rooftop clotheslines to get at DD or Bullseye catching shards of stained glasses in his hands and then skimming them off at a backflipping DD during their church battle or the Kingpin and DD being showered in strobing droplets of water while bathed in the blue light of Kingpin's office, they all go hard on the comic book flavor. It's especially cool to see Duncan's Kingpin effortlessly hurling DD around in true comic book fashion. If only these two could have had a rematch in a sequel.

In the end, perhaps Daredevil's most lasting legacy is in that in casting Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson, this is the movie that ushered into the Marvel fold the man who would go on to successfully launch the MCU with Iron Man in 2008. It's wild to watch the behind the scenes, making of material from the set of Daredevil and see Favreau interacting with Johnson knowing that this guy who's playing the second banana here is going to literally change the face of popular culture and birth the MCU. For his part, Johnson went on to direct another underrated Marvel adaptation with 2007's rip roaring Ghost Rider (I really wish he'd come back for another Marvel movie or even an episode of a Disney + series) but Favreau permanently changed Marvel's fortunes. That doesn't happen without Favreau making that initial connection with Avi Arad and Kevin Feige on Daredevil. So if you love the MCU, thank Daredevil for making it possible.

The character of Daredevil may have gone on to be securely owned by Charlie Cox but Daredevil still has the sole bragging rights to being the one and only Daredevil solo movie. I do expect we'll see Cox's DD on the big screen in the next Spider-Man movie but will he ever get his own solo film? I tend to doubt it (although I'd love to be wrong on that) so for the foreseeable future, 2003's Daredevil will stand as ol' Hornhead's one big screen outing. Twenty years later, it remains a solid superhero movie, even if many remain blind to its appeal. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

A New World of Gods and Monsters

The details of the first stage of the James Gunn era of DC Films are now known with this week's announcement shedding some light on Gunn's and his co-DC Films CEO Peter Safran's plans for giving the DCU a new focus, dubbing this initial chapter as "Gods and Monsters." While the exact details of the underlying, unifying narrative are unknown, we do now know what movies and TV shows we can expect when this new era kicks off in July of 2025 with the Gunn scripted Superman: Legacy

As a DC fan, my initial impression towards yesterday's announcements is very favorable. Mostly I'm just glad to see that Superman is spearheading this new era. If Gunn can bring Superman back to the screen successfully, in a way that truly honors and understands the character (like not letting him murder an opponent with his bare hands), I think the rest of his DC plans will easily come together. Superman is the linchpin of the DC Universe. Getting him right and putting him at the center of the DCU is the only way to have a solid foundation to build on. 

My main nerdy hope with Superman: Legacy - outside of wanting them to finally go deeper into Superman's rogues gallery and give those over used standbys Luthor and Zod a rest - is that I'd love to finally see Metropolis brought to life the way it should be. Metropolis should be as stylized a city as Gotham is. I imagine Tim Burton would have gone this route had he done his proposed '90s Superman movie with Nicholas Cage but that never came to be, obviously, and every Metropolis that's been on film has just been NYC or Chicago rather than the gleaming City of Tomorrow that it ideally should be. I will say I am prepared to be disappointed on this front, it won't be a deal breaker for me if it doesn't happen, but just the same here's hoping that Gunn plans to make the Metropolis skyline a unique and distinctive one. 


My secondary nerd concern is whether or not Superman will wear trunks. I know debating whether a character should be wearing their underwear over their clothes is ripe for ridicule but hey, these things do matter. For whatever reason, Batman can ditch his trunks and it's totally fine but Superman's suit never looks right without them. It's a costume so iconic that if you screw with it too much it doesn't look classic any more and above all Superman has got to look classic. In the same way you wouldn't want to mess with the design of a Coca-Cola can, because everyone knows exactly what it's supposed to look like, from the logo down to the specific shade of red, I say it's best to keep Superman looking as traditional as possible. 


Moving from Metropolis to Gotham, it's reassuring to hear that Matt Reeves' Batman films will be operating independently of the main DCU. I was worried that they might try and fold those films into the main continuity, which I think would have been disastrous, so it's great to know that won't be an issue. Additionally, I love that we'll be getting a Brave and the Bold movie that will bring in a new Batman for the main DCU as well as introduce the broader Bat-family. And being based on Grant Morrison's Batman run, it's going to have a very different, much more overtly comic book-y, flavor than we've seen in live action till now and it'll be the first time we'll have an actually fun Batman film since the Schumacher days. As a Batman fan who laments that the character has been stuck in one groove since Batman Begins in 2005, I welcome the change of pace and the long awaited introduction of some real variety for the character. 

My one and only actual nerd nitpick among all of the new announcements is how they're using the Elseworlds banner to label stuff like Reeves' Batman and Todd Philips' Joker movies. In the comics, Elseworlds typically referred to stories that had one pivotal difference (such as "What if Superman's rocket had landed in the Soviet Union rather than Kansas?") that altered the stories that we know. In contrast, Reeves' Batman and Philips' Joker movies are just straight up multiverse tales. But I suppose the thought must have been that "multiverse" is a term that has become so associated with Marvel (ironic given that in the comics the multiverse was always a DC thing) that they didn't want to have any branding tied to it. They'll still refer to "the multiverse," sure, but in terms of marketing, having a label bearing a word that's so associated with the competition probably seemed like a bad move while "Elseworlds" is a copyrighted, DC-specific term that was right there. 

It's no big deal, of course, but I would have loved for the imprint to be used for actual Elseworlds projects. I think it would have been neat to have live action adaptations of stuff like Gotham By Gaslight and Red Son, for instance, rather than the animated adaptations that we've gotten in the past. I know that's strictly a pipe dream on my part and they'd probably never would have dropped big money into these alternate reality takes but I say it's cool to imagine if they had, don't you think? But I suppose that's just an "Elseworlds" all of its own. 

While we await the realization of all these new projects, it'll be interesting to see how the already completed DCU films due this year will set up the next chapter. In particular, I wonder how The Flash and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom are going to tee things up and how smooth the transition will be from one era to the next. The cinematic DC universe has been defined by turmoil and instability for so long that it's exciting to think of what it's going to look like under a steady hand. 

I do have to say, though, that I feel like we've been down this road before. Back in December I wrote about the CW Special from 2016 hosted by Kevin Smith and Geoff Johns where they touted the upcoming slate of DC Films in the Snyderverse. Things seemed set in stone then too. I mean, most of the movies they were talking about were all done and ready for release. And if you watch the Special Features on the Black Adam DVD, oh boy, it's like a glimpse into an alternate universe. 

Between the time Black Adam was released in theaters in October of last year and the time the DVD came out this January, the future of the DCU that the cast was hyping in the special features had been completely erased (it's awkward and frankly a little sad to hear Dwayne Johnson earnestly say "...Building out this new era of the DC Universe is critically important to me."). I'm sure Gunn and Safran will fare better then their predecessors (no reason to think they won't) but, you know, time will tell. For now, here's to the promise of a new world of Gods and Monsters.