Hardware (1990)

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fourhalfstar

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In last year’s fascinating film industry documentary Lost Soul, director Richard Stanley is made out to be something of a madman auteur. Over the course of the film Stanley watches his first major Hollywood production crumble both from behind the camera and as a masked extra snuck back onset after being unceremoniously removed from the project for his supposed ineptitude & lack of mental stability. It’s unclear whether or not Stanley’s very particular vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau would’ve been any more successful than the madhouse delivered after hothead actors Val Kilmer & Marlon Brando hijacked & derailed the production. It’s certainly true that Stanley did have a specific vision, though, and it was one steeped in his upbringing bent on his mother’s fascination with both anthropology & the occult. I can’t speak for the finalized version of The Island of Dr. Moreau eventually directed by John Frankenheimer, but looking through the documents of the film’s production throughout Lost Soul, I couldn’t help but be spooked by what was happening onset, as if I were witnessing a real life account of black magic gone horribly wrong, a verifiable case of a malicious curse backfiring.

I mention all this because it feels like it was a window into understanding the power of Richard Stanley’s debut feature, Hardware. Existing galaxies outside the typical live action comic book adaptation as we currently understand it, Hardware is far less interested in telling a story than it is in exploring its own Luddite philosophy as a source for horror. This is a film born of the same late 80s technophobia that made the rise of industrial rock & noise music such an era-specific success. Its plot is thin. The characters’ motivations can be unclear. However, this is undeniably powerful filmmaking that can chill & shatter your bones if you allow yourself to lock onto its wavelength. I can’t explain how, but Hardware seemingly casts a spell on its audience, a sentiment I mean quite literally.

If you’re going into Hardware expecting the black cinemagic I just promised you’re likely to be confused for at least the first fifteen minutes. In its opening jaunt of uneven worldbuilding the film feels like a dirt cheap amalgamation of Mad Max & The Terminator (and a boring one at that). Dylan McDermott stars as some kind of futuristic hardware scavenger that combs the desert either in search of roboparts or a site for the first Burning Man festival. I’m not entirely sure. He ends up returning to his longtime, distant girlfriend, having moved on somewhat emotionally, forming a newfound domesticity with their shared bestie/80s sidekick, Shades. Shades trips out on meditation & future-drugs as the couple attempt to rekindle their relationship (by boning). If you can’t tell by my flippant attitude, none of this matters in the least.

What is important is what happens after Dylan McDermott hits the road, somewhat romantically spurned. While smoking legal future-weed, his kinda-girlfriend works on her found object sculpture art and, after including a scavenged piece of robotics brought to her as a gift before the ceremonial boning, she mistakenly gives birth to an evil arachnid droid with a helmet in the shape of a human scull & a thirst for more, more, more blood & gore. This is when Richard Stanley’s evil spell takes hold. The onslaught of roboviolence that dominates the final 2/3rds of Hardware is a chilling glimpse into Cronenberg’s America. Hardware‘s basics are very simple: a damsel in distress is trapped by a scary monster (robot) and any attempt to rescue her leads to more bloodshed. As trashy & campy as these genre films can be, however, Stanley manages to make them uniquely terrifying & unnerving. Hardware is both exactly just like every other creature feature I’ve ever seen before & not at all like any of them. I don’t know what to say about the film’s particular brand of horror other than it subliminally dialed into a part of my mind I prefer to leave locked up & hidden away. Stanley’s debut feature is both a schlocky horror trifle & an unholy incantation that puts the ugliest aspects of modernity to disturbing, downright evil use.

A lot of Hardware is difficult to decipher as either a cliche or a trendsetter. The film’s monochromatic desertscape isn’t an exactly unique vision of the future, which tricks a modern audience into thinking it’s got the film figured out before it really gets rolling. All I know is that once you’re locked in that surveillance state fish tank apartment with that robotic spider monster the results are transcendent. If it weren’t for the trashiness of everything that surrounds that central quest for robosurvival, the film could almost match the fear of the unknowable mastered in John Carpenter’s The Thing. That’s not too shabby for a debut filmmaker the industry tossed off as disorganized & mentally unstable. Richard Stanley has very few feature films attached to his name, but with Hardware alone he deserves to be recognized as a powerful, destructive force. I enjoyed laughing at the film’s sillier flourishes just as much as I did being terrorized by its technological paranoia. This is well calibrated schlock and it’s a shame we don’t have more of it.

-Brandon Ledet

Boomer’s Top Films of 2015

After much delay, here is my list of my ten favorite films of 2015. As is typical for me, it is longer than necessary and overly self­-concerned. Only two are wholly original, while six rely heavily on nostalgia and two arguably do. Before we get to it, first, the films that would probably be on this list had I seen them as planned, but I didn’t: Listen to Me, Marlon; Mommy; What We Are in the Dark; Mad Max: Fury Road; Felt; Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Other films that I enjoyed this year but that didn’t make it onto this list were Trainwreck, Ant-­Man, and, obviously, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which should be on this list, but I saw it too late to count it here).

10. Jupiter Ascending – I know that everyone on earth hated this movie, except for a tiny band of rebels that has taken up hiding in small corners of the internet, making .gifs under an embargo from the rest of the web. Is the plot silly? Yes. Is Mila Kunis the wrong actress for this role? Oh my, yes. But is it the worst movie of the year? Not by a long shot. Jupiter Ascending, by simply existing, posits that there is still an audience in the world that is interested in brand new intellectual property, that there is still room in the world for movies that don’t require brand name recognition to turn a profit. As it turns out, the Wachowski Siblings seem to have been incorrect in their assumption sabout how much leeway audiences are willing to give them, or it may be that the world simply isn’t ready for a movie that states bees are capable of recognizing royalty and that life on earth was seeded for the sole purpose of eventually harvesting all organic existence to create eternal life goo. Regardless, I’ve seen virtually nothing but negative criticism about this movie and its plot holes (which I’m not here to apologize for or deny the existence of), but how much can you really hate a movie that features Channing Tatum flying around on hover skates and an extended Terry Gilliam homage sequence? I can’t bring myself to hate it at all, which is more than I could say for other films this year (*cough* Jurassic World *cough*).

9. Kingsman: The Secret Service – I first saw an “extended preview” for this movie during an airing of American Horror Story’s fourth season, and I wasn’t impressed or intrigued in the slightest. I think the problem was that the preview in question chose to focus on the action-­oriented nature of the film, neglecting to highlight that this film wasn’t simply an action movie clone but a love letter to Roger Moore’s time as James Bond (meaning that this is the first, but far from last, film on this list that traded on nostalgia for my attention). From the disfigured henchman whose physique is enhanced with deadly weapons, to the world-­takeover plans of the eccentric villain, to the huge Blofeld-­esque base hidden deep within a mountain, this movie was a delightful revisitation of spy films of yesteryear. By deconstructing the idea of the gentleman assassin by having protagonist Eggs face classist discrimination within the ranks of the secret organization by which he has been recruited and gleefully combining the camp of Moore’s Bond with the brutality of a Bourne film, Kingsman stood out as an early contender for best action movie of the year, even if it did get dumped into theatres at a bad time of year.

8. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story – This movie made me weep openly at several points throughout the film. Maybe it’s because I have a huge soft spot in my heart for all things related to the Jim Henson workshop and a particular fondness both for Sesame Street in general and Big Bird in particular (several children in this movie are seen carrying the same plush replication of the character as the one I had as a child, purchased for me by my mother when we went to see Sesame Street on Ice, one of my earliest memories). More likely, however, it’s because this is a deeply sentimental documentary, one that is lovingly crafted in a way that I would be more critical of if the subject material was more contentious. But what’s controversial about Big Bird? Nothing that I can think of. Within the structure of the contemporary documentary, there is a pattern: exposition about the subject, an exploration of the subject in its heyday, the appearance of some kind of problem that affected the subject, and projections about the potential future of the subject. Normally, that third part revolves around something controversial or contentious: a sudden death on the set of a film project, the exposure of something criminal or unethical about an individual, etc. Here, however, the dark turning point is the sudden but natural death of Jim Henson, which affected Spinney but did not destroy or devalue him. Everyone interviewed in this doc has nothing but kind things to say about Spinney and his wife, and it’s nice to see such an overwhelmingly positive doc that does not shy away from the darker elements of his life, like his first marriage and the paternal abuse he endured as a child. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the accusations made against Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash in recent years (accusations that were thrown out in court, it should be noted), it touches the heart to know that some heroes don’t have to fall in the public eye; some childhood icons can still be idolized.

7. Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh Ich seh) – In my review of this film, I expressed criticism of the directors’ choices, especially as they pertain to the foreshadowing of film’s eleventh hour revelations. However, I also noted that this was a gorgeous movie with style to spare. The tension between the twins and the woman who may be their mother or a bandaged impostor builds in an exponential but organic way. Goodnight Mommy has been derided by its detractors as “torture porn,” referring to the way that the twins ultimately turn the tables on the woman whose increasingly cruel and incomprehensible changes in behavior make them question her identity, but those moments of horror are actually quite well shot and understated in their simplicity. Don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to this as a terrible movie, or an exploitative one; it’s quite good, it just could have worked as a  master class in how to direct a contemporary thriller had the directors had a little more self control with regards to the foreshadowing and kept it as subtle as the horror that permeates much of the rest of the film.

6. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – I expressed most of my thoughts about this documentary in my review of it, so I recommend reading that for a clearer picture of why I enjoyed it so much. Still, I’ll reiterate that the film, which explores all the ways that fate conspired to hand young indie director Richard Stanley the opportunity to create his lifelong pet project and then cruelly rip his dream from his hands through no real fault of his own, is definitely worth a watch, for artists and non-­artists alike. Stanley was standing on the cusp of a potentially great career, but hurricanes, stars’ personal tragedies, big egos, and Hollywood backroom dealing so thoroughly broke his spirit that he eventually spent months going native in Australia in order to escape from the artistic and personal trauma of it all, only for the production to find him again. A recounting of one of the most troubled productions in film history, this was definitely one of the best films of the year.

5. It Follows – “Aesthetic” has become a Tumblr buzzword of late, memetically taking on a life of its own to the point where simply posting the word under a photo of virtually anything is a joke in and of itself. I’m not some old bastard living up on a hill and complaining about this, but it has dulled the word’s meaning to the point that we are approaching a need for a new word to represent that which the word used to mean­­ in much the same way “epic” can be applied to anything from a nation-­building generation-­spanning narrative to Taco Bell meat wrapped in a giant Dorito now. While the word still means something, let’s talk about It Follows, 2015’s premiere indie horror movie that far succeeded expectations. Starring Maika Monroe (who was presumably created in a laboratory by scientists who couldn’t choose between replicating Brie Larson or Georgina Haig), David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore film is planted squarely in the aesthetics of 1988 in a way that elicits a warmness in me and takes me by surprise. I don’t necessarily think that It Follows is the best horror film in recent memory, although it is arguably the best of 2015 despite being more creepy than frightening; I simply find the tension of it to be less fascinating than its visual choices. It calls to mind other 80s­-appropriating vehicles that rely on nostalgia, but succeeds and captures more clearly that era than most despite being set in the present (or very near future): the kids watch nothing but old cartoons and B&W B­-movies on a television set with knobs (sitting atop an older console TV), they play Old Maid with cards from the 1970s, modern cars are seen only in the deep background, and, most tellingly, pornography exists only as magazines that look like they fell through a portal in time from 1978 (neighborhood boys spy on a teen girl in a bathing suit, as if any child with the internet could be so “innocent”). It’s like a product that falls just shy of being tailor­-made for me, right down to posters that would look great on the cover of a VHS box.

4. Cop Car – Saying that this film plays on nostalgia is a bit of a cheat, as it doesn’t make any direct comparisons to films of the past in the way that, say, Kingsman or It Follows does. However, in my review of the film, I mentioned that it seems directly inspired by the dark perspectives of the Coen Brothers, especially Fargo. Cop Car plays out most like that film in terms of its mostly cynical plot focusing on innocence lost because of poorly timed discoveries and seemingly harmless curiosity. There’s also a real attention to emotional honesty and investment that lend the film a verisimilitude that serves to heighten the emotional investment it solicits. I said more in my review of the film, so check that out for more.

3. Turbo Kid – Perhaps more than any other film on this list (with the possible exception of the following entry), Turbo Kid was a smorgasbord of eighties ideas smashed together into one glorious and beautiful assault on the senses. Moreover, each of those ideas is realized in bloody practical effect magic. The plot relies on a huge  narrative convenience, but it’s so much fun that it’s worth going along with.

2. The Final Girls – The nostalgia bait is particularly strong for me with this film, as it trades not only on my fondness for the slasher genre but also on my fondness  for my old hometown: Baton Rouge, here standing in for L.A. (I think). The Frost­Top shows up in this film, as does the Varsity Theatre, a building that I walked past every day for nearly a decade and which plays an important role as the location where the main “real world” characters get Last Action Hero’d into the film­-within-­the-­film Camp Bloodbath. There’s no lead-up to the moment where the crossover happens, and the fact that the film expects us to forget about the fact that Our Heroes escaped into the film while fleeing a horrible fire that likely killed dozens of others (as well as the presence of some truly terrible CGI) does some damage to the film’s credibility. Overall, however, as a send­up of Friday the 13th (et al) that focuses almost entirely on the relationships between female friends as well as a young woman and the woman who is not quite her mother, The Final Girls is well deserving of attention.

1. Queen of Earth – This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and ultimately isn’t intended to be in ascending order of enjoyment or objective value, except in the case of this film, which I found to be, within the limited number of new films that I saw this year, the best of the bunch. I detailed all the things I loved in my review, but I’ll briefly recapitulate here: two lifelong friends visit terrible manipulation and emotional violence upon each other in a tense story that spans two separate summer getaways, where past secrets, petty jealousies, and personal vendettas come to light while one of the woman slowly  becomes more deranged. This was my favorite movie of the year, and its 1970s aesthetic makes it work all the better. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2015)

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threehalfstar

I don’t really remember much about John Frankenheimer’s 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. My parents rented it the summer it came to VHS, and, presumably ignorant of how mature it was, allowed me to watch it with them (of course, my father was and is the kind of person who really only objected to profanity and sex, while violence was ignored most of the time; it’s telling that they allowed me to watch this movie, but Miss Congeniality was banned in our house years later due to Sandra Bullock’s “foul” mouth). Most of what I remember is that Fairuza Balk, who I knew from Return to Oz, was in it, as was some hideous wheezing monster named Marlon Brando, whom my mother tried unsuccessfully to convince me was once a handsome movie star. This was a movie that had hyena monsters and a horribly graphic scene of a beast person giving birth, but I don’t remember those elements at all while Brando’s white-painted face haunted me for years.

But we’re not here to talk about that movie; we’re here to talk about what that movie could have been, or, more accurately, about the documentary about the movie that could have been, had original director Richard Stanley not been fired from the project, and all the myriad ways that fate conspired to destroy his vision. In Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, director David Gregory delves into Stanley’s fascination with H.G. Wells’s novel from early childhood and his lifelong pursuit of giving the book a film adaptation that lived up to the story’s potential. Following the successes of his cyberpunk post-apocalypse horror flick Hardware and his sophomore follow up Dust Devil, Stanley found himself in talks with New Line about directing a film for them. Due to his lifelong love of Dr. Moreau, he successfully pitched the adaptation; it was all downhill from there.

Lost Soul covers a lot of ground, with interviews from sources as varied as Balk, Stanley, New Line founder and president Robert Shaye, Moreau animal behavioral consultant Peter Elliott, and actors Marco Hofschneider, Temuera Morrison, Neil Young (no, not that one), Fiona Mahl, and Rob Morrow (who took over for Val Kilmer in the Prendick role when Kilmer’s insistence on fewer shooting days meant that Kilmer was shifted into the role of Montgomery, initially filled by James Woods; Morrow would also eventually bow out and be replaced by David Thewlis). Beginning with Stanley’s upbringing as the child of a single mother who was fascinated by occultism both academically and personally and following through to Stanley’s current career (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty), the documentary details how Stanley, a young indie director whose pet project suddenly became a multi-million dollar picture when Brando expressed interest in the title role, was eventually fired from the production when he found himself in over his head and beset by problems. The literal hurricanes that destroyed many sets were nothing compared to the setback caused by Brando’s daughter’s suicide during pre-production, making it impossible to film significant portions of the film for several weeks. Worse still were the mind games that Kilmer used to undermine and belittle Stanley; the actor was going through a nasty divorce at the time, but that doesn’t begin to cover a fraction of the horror stories of intimidation tactics and threats the cast and crew recall from their time working on the film.

Stanley was ultimately fired as the result of many things that were outside of his control, and this story is a tragic one. It’s not the most engaging documentary I’ve seen, and lacks the warmth and nostalgia of, say, Best Worst Movie, which also tackled the making of a notoriously bad feature. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the biggest box office and critical flops of the 1990s, and it serves as a reminder of how an artist can be destroyed by concerns, commercial or otherwise, that are outside of his or her hands. Stanley was propelled far beyond what he was suited and prepared for too early in his career and his talent and drive weren’t enough to save him or Dr. Moreau.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond