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by Bill Gibron

30 Apr 2009

Compiling Best-of Lists is always tough. No matter what you pick, no matter the rest of the critical consensus on the issue, someone comes along who knows a whole lot better than you and proceeds to call the compilation on every misguided choice and each obvious, awkward exclusion. Opinion can never, ever please all the people all the time, but when one goes out on a limb and declares a collection of movies, albums, performance, hamburgers the cream of the cultural crop, someone’s guaranteed to crap all over your determination. Apparently, it’s hard to remember that this is meant as some manner of individual perspective, not a mandated media benchmark by which all other conclusions are judged and joked about.

That being said, Spring makes such issues double tough. As we mentioned yesterday, Hollywood has tried over recent years to broadside the usual tally of terrible titles with occasionally inspired surprise hits. In 2008, Cloverfield and Forgetting Sarah Marshall made the January to May season totally tolerable. In 2007, we got Zodiac and Hot Fuzz. So it’s no surprise that SE&L could find five films that represent the top of the typical Tinsel Town trash heap. What remains incredible is the number of entries that barely missed out. Fans of the serious science fiction format were rewarded with Alex Proyas’ intriguing Knowing, though the final 15 minutes probably turned this doom and gloom thriller from a positive to a problem for many. Similarly, Crank: High Voltage is one of those ‘love it or loathe it’ efforts that will have so called film snobs snickering in half-hearted disbelief.

Monsters vs. Aliens was a hollow 3D treat, while I Love You Man proved the bro-mantic comedy could tolerate a little more seriousness. Horror even got some help in the popularity department with the cruel, crazy My Bloody Valentine update. In the end, the final five represents, at least from our perspective, what will be the most memorable, meaningful films come a final end of the year reconsideration. Of course they will stir controversy. Naturally, some of you will think we are insane. But the truth is - no list is conclusive. It’s all subjectivity passing itself off as objectivity, especially to people who enjoy piling on. So get your argumentative knives ready as we prepare to die the death of a thousand cinematic cuts. Here are the films Short Ends and Leader felt represented Spring 2009’s best, beginning with:

5. Friday the 13th 2009

Along with our selection at Number Three, this will probably be our most controversial and debatable choice, especially for those misguided few who still insist on calling the original franchise anything more than a cheesy splatter diversion. Sure, it hit a cultural nerve, but it can’t hold an aesthetic candle to such obvious ‘80s classics as The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, or The Thing. So when Marcus Nispel signed on to do the same to Sean Cunningham’s signature film as he did with Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fright fans had a reason to be cheerful. And when they finally got a chance to see the sadistic slice and dice result, their faith in the slasher genre was instantly reinstated. Nispel should indeed be the go-to guy for any future macabre remake. He instinctually understands the genre and his eye for evil is laser sharp. The best horror film of 2009 so far, without question.

4. Coraline

Henry Selick really should be more popular than he is. Part of the problem is that his one great masterpiece - Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas - was not a major success during its original run, and has since almost completely been given over to the marquee name on the title (though beyond creating it, said savant had little to do with the actual production). No, Selick suffers from his love of a lost artform - stop motion animation - and the limited outlet for such imagination…until now. Rendered in ridiculously lush 3D and sporting a darker than usual story from Neil Gaiman, this rowdy, raucous allegory about children and their dissatisfied family affairs literally leaps off the screen and settles right down inside your sense of aesthetic bliss. It betters everything that makes Nightmare so classic while keeping in line with the author’s outsized view of youth. The combination is crackerjack.

3. Watchmen

Okay - here comes the second of SE&L‘s ill-conceived choices, though we have to admit that Zack Snyder could never live up to the hype generated by a web world of Moore/Gibbons purists. Argue all you want to over the cast, the last act removal of the oft-complained over squid, the leaving of certain subplots to a stand-alone DVD release, or the near religious faithfulness with which the Dawn of the Dead/300 director approached this material. Whatever your argument, pro or con, it’s hard to deny the visionary work on display here. Snyder stepped up and actually gave the Watchmen universe a realistic, authentic sheen. Even elements like Dr. Manhattan’s private parts make sense within this look at a society so sick with it can’t see the saviors within it. For our money, this is the second more important comic book movie after The Dark Knight, another example of mutating the genre to fit more meaningful mainstream goals.

2. Adventureland

Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen, and this critic believes that many who dismissed this film failed to see the key aspect that makes this look back at life circa 1987 so unforgettable - these are COLLEGE kids we are talking about, not numbskulled high school graduates. It’s one thing to see teens haggle over the family car. It’s another to see someone with a sheepskin experience the same socially emasculating reality. Greg Motolla creates the anti-Superbad here, a film that’s exceedingly sweet where his previous hit was scatological…maybe to a fault. Jesse Eisenberg’s pitch perfect performance, a turn that takes a master of understated sarcasm to pull off, leads us deep into a local amusement park populated by real people with even more recognizable issues. And that Motolla doesn’t supply any easy answers is the sad-sweet icing on this amazing masterwork’s creative cake.

1. Anvil: The Story of Anvil

An unusual choice, but then again, this stellar music documentary is a rarity in unto itself - a heavy metal story that’s less about the hand signs and more about the men striving to get fans fired up. Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner were lost teenagers in Canada when they vowed to rock until they made it to the top. Now, after a brief stop over at ersatz stardom circa the early ‘80s, the more than middle aged musicians are still trying to convince an uncaring industry that they really do matter. The fans definitely think so. The filmmaker here - ex-roadie turned Hollywood heavyweight Sacha Gervais - put enough Spinal Tap references in to make one think they are witness to another memorable meta-put-on by a group of great actors. When the truth comes out (Anvil has never quit, producing 13 albums since they formed) it’s both heart breaking and hilarious. Rooting for the underdogs has never been so much fun - especially when said runners-up didn’t deserve to be forgotten in the first place.

by Bill Gibron

29 Apr 2009

Welcome back traditional Spring film season - how we missed you so. You remember don’t you, the times we used spend together? We’d take four months out of every year and just hang out, your weekly selection of Summer/Awards cast-offs and long delayed failures clogging up the local Cineplex with nothing but shoulder shrugging specials. This is the way it used to be, the way we film fans remember the span between January and May - before the blockbuster moves in and takes over the ticket line landscape. There’s no popcorn fare in your past - just lots and lots of ideas that got really, really lost in the tepid translation. Oh sure, you tried to pad your rep, resorting to surprise hits like 300 and Passion of the Christ to change your image. But now…now things are back to the way they used to be, and the feeling of familiarity is intoxicating.

Indeed, Spring 2009 was terrible, the overall perspective more mediocre than memorable. This was the time of Blart, of Mall Cops so warm and cuddly that they made the chunky in the demographic wet themselves, Susan Boyle style. It was the quarter of bad future shock (Push) and even worse action antics (Transporter 3, Dragonball Evolution). It was the period that gave us Inkheart, The Soloist, Sunshine Cleaning, and the piled up cordwood corpses of A Haunting in Connecticut. Not every offering was so horrific, but we did have to suffer through Hannah Montana’s movie, said series’ purity ring off-shoots, and the fourth Fast and Furious film. Things were so bad this time around that Tyler Perry’s latest, the hit and miss Madea Goes to Jail, was more satisfying than most of what came out of Tinsel Town’s tainted factory.

Still, there were five that really stood out, five that made their limited running time in the theater the cinematic equivalent of being waterboarded with Sean Hannity. Some of them were obvious from the minute they were announced - even a ‘minkey’ could see that. Others snuck up on you like unwelcome relatives at a social occasion. Eventually, it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. While we still have an astonishing nine more months until this year is officially over, one wonders how high up some of these turkeys will land come final annual aesthetic tally time. More disconcerting is the notion that, indeed, things can and WILL get worse. Let’s begin with:

5. The Uninvited

Nothing sucks harder than sitting in the theater watching a supposedly suspenseful film and then realizing, halfway through, you remember the third act plot twist that’s still 20 to 30 minutes away. It’s all downhill from there - and that’s exactly what happened with this remake of the Korean hit The Tale of Two Sisters. Long before the dramatic denouement, this critic experienced the kind of narrative déjà vu you don’t want to have during a thriller. By the time of the reveal, he was practically screaming for the spoiler to show up and get it over with. The rest of the movie has a moody atmosphere that can only come from an older man sleeping with a much younger trophy wife, and the Hand that Rocks the Glass House Cradle conceits are truly dull and lifeless. Of the many wannabe fright flicks of the Spring, this was the most disappointing.

4. He’s Just Not That Into You

By its very definition, a romantic comedy has to have (a) romance, and (b) laughs. What this dreadful dissertation, based on that most elusive of literary sources - the self help book, has is lots of screaming women and their equally whiny weepy best friends. This is the kind of movie that, if it were possible, would have Susan B. Anthony and her fellow zombie suffragettes rising from the grave in order to stage posthumous protests. Nothing works - not the quasi-chemistry between to the onscreen lovers, not the male POV advice from a seemingly lost Justin Long, not the patented ditz of Drew Barrymore or the barely alive ennui of Jennifer Connelly - and that’s just the talent with their names above the credits. This film truly contains the single worst performance of 2009 so far - the cloying, cliché-filled failure that is Ginnifer Goodwin’s grating, borderline retarded Gigi. It’s a literal pain to watch.

3. Outlander

Okay, here’s the deal. This is clearly the work of some insular geek who invests way too much time in Viking themed role playing games and not enough actually experiencing the real world. In between servings of Hot Pockets and mediocre science fiction, he dreams up this idea of an alien crash landing in the middle of a Nordic reenactment society, and then adds a glowing CG monster just to make things more “nerdgasm”-esque. Ew. That’s right, folks - a blink and you missed it affair starring Mel Gibson’s favorite big screen savior (James Caviezel), John Hurt, and Ron Pearlman - it was clearly paycheck cashing time all around. The only thing missing was Ben Kingsley and Uwe Boll’s name on the credits. Had any of the material come close to meeting the expectations of the D&D dork who dreamed it up, we could have had a guilty pleasure. All we wound up with was a bunch of Valhalla vomit.

2. The Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience

Miley Cyrus may be the female equivalent of the entertainment antichrist, but these three losers from the rejected pages of a pedophile’s Tiger Beat truly wear the number of the beast, and it’s significantly less that 666 if you go by the box office. Bombs don’t thud quite as hard as this craven concert movie, especially when there was so much pre-publicity hype about how popular these wholesome rockers really were/are. Apparently, like their proposed talent, said build-up was all desperate House of Mouse smoke and mirrors. Some have argued that the movie’s box theatrical release comings can be linked to parents finally figuring out that the Jonases are nothing more than a way to sell sex to their pre-pubescent tween children. Of course, the fact that their tepid music blows donkey butt doesn’t mean anything, right? When The Monkees, Menudo, and The Banana Splits have more artistic integrity, you know you’re bound to fail.

1. Pink Panther 2

This one is so bad, so egregiously awful, that the rest of the list looks like 2001, Citizen Kane, and The Dark Knight by comparison. Someday, perhaps when he’s dead, a tell-all tome will come out about Steve Martin, and at that time, the bile soaked grudge he has against the late, great Peter Sellers, and the reason he keeps pissing all over the man’s memory with a vengeance, will be revealed. There is no excuse for this film save for one - money. The first remake was an unfathomable hit, so following the Hollywood maxim, the more cash you make, the more copies you’ll create. Never mind that the script appears gleaned from a dozen dopey slapstick efforts, and Martin has aged out of his physical comedian shtick. The direction, by someone named Harald Zwart, takes every tired idea and drives it into the ground with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And that’s just the tolerable bits.

by Bill Gibron

28 Apr 2009

It’s funny to watch the pundits weigh in, humorous in the kind of sick, twisted and very dark way that comedy can occasionally creep up on you. Critics were kept away and still they had comment on how something so obviously mediocre (since it wasn’t screened for them, you see) ended up becoming a $29 million pre-Summer season smash. Many point to the actress (or “talent”, in this case, one Beyonce Knowles), while others suggest that the urban market, well known for supporting their favorites, took some of the money they set aside for Tyler Perry every year and spent it instead on this ersatz thriller. There’s even the suggestion that race - in this case, the African American as victim vs. Caucasian as cruel villain angle - brought in viewers ready to uncork four decades of civil rights struggles on their local Cineplex.

So which is it? Why did Obsessed, a poorly received, sneaking through the backdoor entry into the typically tepid Spring movie cavalcade, become the exception and not the rule. Tracking had the film making something in the middle teens over the 24 April weekend, and yet when all was said and done, that tally was almost double. It’s nothing new. Every year, some movie comes in with mediocre expectations and thoroughly exceeds them. It’s as much a given as some highly hyped mega-hit in the making walking into the blockbuster foray and coming up short - as in ‘someone’s gonna get fired’ short. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a suggestion that seems incongruous to the way we view the social fabric and, instead, signals a jaded and somewhat racist view of the media, and the movies that rely on it for publicity and purpose.

Going back to our man in drag for a second, it’s always stunning to watch young white male journalists joust over why a film like The Family That Preys or Madea Goes to Jail winds up near or at the top of the three day totals. They blame organized church groups and other special interests for stepping in and buying up entire theaters, while others use an insulting “they don’t know any better” sort of rationale. When teens show up en masse for another Saw sequel, PG-13 horror romp, or stupid sex comedy, they aren’t accused of being compelled as a group no matter the title, or even worse, aesthetically out of step with what is proper and right. True, fright films are often dismissed outright because of their content and craven appeal. But when it comes to movies made for a certain niche, the analysis is not so nice.

Though it might sound brazen to suggest it, people like Tyler Perry and producer William Packer (who tackled both Obsessed and the previous stepping hit Stomp the Yard) realize that, like George W. Bush, Hollywood hates black people. Oh, they don’t dislike their money, or their motivation to see something familiar and fun (right Transporter and Fast and Furious series?). No, what Tinsel Town takes away from all ethnic cinema is the same narrow-minded, common denominator view that finds them changing the nationality of the main characters in 21, or allowing M Night Shyamalan to hire non-Asians to play Asian characters in his anime adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since they don’t understand people outside their own xenophobic sphere of influence, they instead dumb everything down to a level of ludicrousness that’s truly offensive.

Granted, no one is saying that Perry or his offshoots make the most complicated or realistic looks at life within their community, but if African Americans were really offended by their antics, they certainly wouldn’t line up to fund their farcical morality plays. No, what a film like First Sunday, or Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins offers is a motion picture experience that actually understands (or tries to understand) the minority experience from the inside out. As Spike Lee has often said, filmmakers of color are the only one’s capable of speaking to their people’s sensibilities. And when you have 85% to 90% of Hollywood run by Caucasians, what does that tell you about the ‘voice’ within the films being made? The stereotyping is so blatant that it’s been the source of several scholarly looks at the industry’s inferred intolerance.

Again, no one is arguing for the artistic merit of a movie aimed specifically at a certain sector of society. There are dozens of high minded entries that fail to resonate with their proposed demographics’ ideals. When you watch one of Tyler Perry’s PLAYS (not the film adaptations of same), you instantly understand the difference. The playwright turned cultural phenomenon doesn’t start with characters or situations, he starts with philosophies and racial identity. He combs through the community and picks out things that matter the most - love, religion, hardship, faith, hope, displacement, togetherness, the inevitability of failure, and the enduring reality that family can overcome almost all such strife. He then pulls out some noted archetypes, plugs in some amazing gospel soul music, and - viola! - an instant hit.

It’s not unlike what someone like Judd Apatow does. Knocked Up is nothing but accidental promiscuity taken to the ultimate biological ends, the shiny white TV goddess given over to a relationship with a schelpy Jewish boy in hopes that he will mature enough to become a meaningful partner. Toss in some stoners, a collection of couples clichés, and enough scatology to make it all seem like a frathouse joke, and you’ve got a movie still praised by critics (including yours truly) as something genuinely clever and insightful. Yet how many would argue that a film like Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? or Meet the Browns isn’t the same thing, just shifted over into the world of African American? Even more homemade efforts like So Fresh, So Clean and Family Reunion, The Movie resonate better than a standard slate of opening weekend offerings.

So it’s not surprising that Beyonce, a superstar within the music business, and a movie geared toward taking the minority position in a standard he said/she said thriller winds up walking away with box office gold. Just like when Perry hired Janet Jackson and Jill Scott to be in one of his films, such tied promotion pushes the media transversely across boundaries it may never experience otherwise. Of course, the kicker comes when you look beyond the numbers and see what is really going on behind the scenes. Obsessed may have been produced by people of color, but it was actually directed by a white man from London (Steve Shill), and written by another member of the majority (David Loughery) responsible for other ‘race’ related material like Lakewood Terrace and Passenger 57. Talk about a twist ending. Maybe Hollywood has finally wised up. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re doing what they do best - carpetbagging a concept that someone did first, and does better. 

by Bill Gibron

27 Apr 2009

In connection with PopMattersfirst installment in a week long look at the hits and misses of Summer 2009, we here at Short Ends & Leader have decided to pimp the 10 titles we are most looking forward to viewing come popcorn movie sign. Some of them are obvious. A few you might not have heard of. And a couple are definitely the equivalent of going out on a limb (or in the case of at least one already reviewed entry, bucking the bad vibe trend). But unlike the rest of mainstream America who is palpating wildly at the thought of another Ice Age film and a second Night at an already lame Museum, we hope our choices are a little more refined. After all, we have to see everything. Why not get excited about those entries that actually stir our imagination - not our gag reflex, beginning with:

Star Trek

We have to be careful here, less the losers in Lucas Nation accuse us of once again ripping on the man who raped our childhood. SE&L consider themselves members of the Trek take on speculative fiction. We prefer to use our brains vs. various other organs when it comes to whiz bang future shock. So when J.J. Abrams announced he was rebooting the Original Series to show how Kirk, Spock, and the rest became the saviors of the universe, we held our breath and hoped for the best. Early reviews state we can start to exhale. In less than a week, we’ll have our own pre-screening response to how successful he was.

Drag Me to Hell

Sam Raimi can be forgiven for a lot of things - keeping Evil Dead 4 away from us for nearly 20 years (rumors say he’s definitely planning another installment…for 2011!!!), turning Spider-man into an Emo dancing douche, even using his Ghost House production company to shove a dozen Westernized J-horror remakes down our already overburdened Asian fear aesthetic. But can he really pull of a return to terror and keep it within a PG-13 dynamic - and the better question is should he? He’s R-rated at the very least. We’ll have to wait until the end of May to find out.

Dead Snow

Okay, okay - we know that hth eorror film nation has already dismissed this effort outright as too much promise undone by too little accomplishment. Apparently, it’s all bark and no ‘bite’. And we get it - it’s not Ils, or Inside, or Let the Right One In, or any number of current post-millennial macabre faves. Still - NAZI ZOMBIES!!! How can you not appreciate the grindhouse glory in such a concept? It’s like every night terror you’ve ever had mixed with a sexless version of Love Camp 7. Come on! We’ll be there - and probably be disappointed as well.


As stated before, we are definitely suckers for old school serious sci-fi here at SE&L, and this one has the potential for being something really special. David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones (adopting his Dad’s original surname) has crafted a vehicle for as much spectacle as thought, and Sam Rockwell gives what many consider to be one of his best performances. And here’s a suggestion - try and avoid the trailer that’s currently making the rounds. For our money, it gives far too much away, though we also imagine that Jones has more up his sleeve than any preview can completely spoil.

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow made some great movies in the ‘80s (Near Dark, Blue Steel) before her partnership both on and off the set with husband James Cameron imploded around the time of Point Break. Since then, her output has been shoddy at best, especially in the last 10 years or so. But the buzz on this Iraq War thriller is huge, and we’d love to see Bigelow make the comeback she so richly deserves. In a man’s world, she remains one of the few female filmmakers with the potential to tap into the pure testosterone tenets of the action/thriller genre.

Funny People

Judd Apatow going serious? What’s the world coming to? Well, here’s betting the more somber material is balanced with the standard bro-frat formula that’s turned the Freaks and Geeks’ guide into a hit making household name. Of course, it’s a big gamble to leave the scatological behind completely. With Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in tow, there’s a good chance that Apatow scores big here. And remember, James L. Brooks did comedy before an Oscar winning dramatist of sorts. Why shouldn’t the man behind the insightful Knocked Up have the same opportunity to shine?

District 9

Have you seen Alive in Joburg, Neil Blomkamp’s political allegory that puts issues of South Africa and race within a slick, sci-fi exposé? If you haven’t then head over to YouTube and check it out. Now imagine this amazing short expanded to feature film length, with the power of Peter Jackson and WETA working behind the scenes. If you’re geek radar isn’t off the charts by now, there’s something wrong with it - and you! And here’s hoping it’s NOT the proposed Halo adaptation that Universal rejected as “too expensive” a while back. No one needs another lame videogame-based film.

Taking Woodstock

Granted, ‘60s nostalgia has gone the way of the poodle skirt and the disco ball, replaced by a glam slam love of all things ‘80s and new wave, but that doesn’t mean that Ang Lee can’t pull of this tale of the Peace Generation’s communal calling card. In fact, we’re counting on the man behind The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to deliver big time. And with a story like this, centering on a small town motel owner who manages somehow to get the biggest rock concert in the history of the US situated in his own backyard, Lee’s poised to produce something magical.

Inglorious Basterds

Unlike most online sites, we LOVE Quentin Tarantino. We just do, so sue us. We worship at the altar of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and have nothing but admiration for his homage heavy work in Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill and Death Proof. So there’s no doubt we’ll be front and center when this blood soaked war flick about Jewish soldiers scalping Nazis in Occupied France hits theaters this August. It sounds like everything that man is known for and needs to make quality exploitation excellence. Even when he underperformers, no one excites cinema the way this post-modern prophet can. Let the flaming begin!

H2: Halloween 2

Gotta love the hospital setting, though one has to admit that it instantly reminds fans of the failures inherent in the Carpenter produced sequel of his original. Rob Zombie may be a macabre purist whipping boy, but we’ll take his remarkable look at the Michael Myers legend over some of the tepid attempts to bring back those old school shivers of late (take that, Last House on the Left). At least Zombie remembers to keep things nice and brutal - much to the chagrin of those who apparently like their fear factors lame and lukewarm.

by Bill Gibron

26 Apr 2009

While sports reporters have sat back and lamented laboriously about the apparent death of “the sweet science” (aka, boxing), mixed martial arts and its various pugilistic paradigms (cage fighting, pit fighting, bare knuckles, etc.) have slowly taken over the squared circle demographic. Returning the art of kicking someone’s ass to the days of no holds barred bedlam, this new breed of brawl is like Thunderdome without the random Tina Turner appearances. It’s pure brutality and body builder frescos, aggression laced with nothing except amped adrenalin. Now, in an attempt to broaden their brawny appeal, certain MMA superstars have made a movie. Entitled Never Surrender, it’s as shameless as it is packed with the kind of product a videogame fed fight fan of this new style of smackdown would adore. 

Diego Carter has just won the championship belt in his professional cage fighting division. How does he celebrate? He hooks up with some random Russian babe at a club and ends up competing in an illegal underground fight tournament. The stakes? Lots of cash - tax free - and the “use” of a sexual consort. If you win, you get your opponent’s bed buddy for the night. If you lose - well, Diego never loses, so that’s not important. While his friends and brother obsess over his whereabouts, our hero continues to kick butt and sample the “spoils” of his victories. But when he learns that the ladies are white slaves to the competition’s director, an evil man named Seifer, and that there is really no hope of escape, Diego decides to settle things once and for all - and there’s only one place where he meters out his brand of justice…in the ring!

Never Surrender is perfect man cave entertainment. It’s all fisticuffs and fetching females in various states of undress. It’s testosterone fueled with ludicrousness, a movie so unabashedly aimed at the crotch of its potential viewers that it barely comes up for some fresh, musk free air. The brainchild of former champion/fighter extraordinaire Hector Echavarria (who wrote, produced, directed AND stars here), this is merely an excuse for 89 breezy minutes of sex and violence. When Diego and his pals aren’t messing up wannabes who think they can challenge their well chiseled sense of propriety, they’re beating the snot out of each other in ADD edited action scenes. It has to be said that, as a filmmaker, Echavarria gets the concept of celluloid clashes right. His fights are gladiatorial in nature, ebbing and flowing before faces are smashed directly into the canvas.

He also loves the ladies. While the primary casting commitment needed to be an actress here revolves around a desire to show off your dirty pillows, our director makes the most of his monkey business. It’s as if Zalman King stepped off the set of Red Shoe Diaries circa 1992 and decided to make Bloodfist IX: Tits and Tap Outs. The longue lizard muzak in the background. The emphasis on nubile flesh being literally manhandled by battle weary hunks. If it weren’t for the post-modern LA/Las Vegas setting, you’d swear this was some kind of perverse peplum. Scattered throughout are Eschavarria’s pals - men with names like Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, Anderson “The Spider” Silva, BJ “The Prodigy” Penn, and someone this critic has actually heard of, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Together, they turn a nonstop barrage of barely believable elements into a grand goofy guilty pleasure.

The biggest props, however, need to go to Patrick Kilpatrick as the vile, villainous Seifer. This is a meat puppet who clearly believes every sentiment slipping out of his chiseled, cauliflowered façade. Though he’s not a professional fighter, he has the look of someone who has used his biceps instead of his brains to solve problems. Attempting a passable Eastern European accent (lots of V-ed “W"s here), he comes across as malevolence housed in a steroided stump of a human being. He’s the reason we care about anything here. His omnipresent threat, positioned against the inevitability of a last act showdown, pushes Never Surrender forward where it would otherwise stumble and stop.

As for our multifaceted lead, Echavarria suffers from his resemblance to another ‘80s icon. When you squint your eyes and add a pronounced Bronx honk, this Argentine athlete looks striking like Andrew Dice Clay, down to the slicked back hair and chest forward persona. If he wasn’t spewing Shaolin style proverbs about being true to yourself, you’d swear he’d be cracking wise with curse-word laden nursery rhymes. Otherwise, he’s like the rest of the fighters present - capable, if not very polished. They can definitely stand tall during the well choreographed fight scenes. But give them a ream of dialogue, or even worse, a silent sequence where they must react to something off camera, and they turn into Carl Lewis throwing out the first pitch at a 2003 Seattle Mariners’ game. They’re not bad, just a little befuddled by thinking with anything other than their mitts.

As for the DVD, Lionsgate does little to celebrate this attempt at cinema. There’s a nice, EPK-like Making-of, which tends to let the montages, and not the cast and crew, do the talking. Then there’s “Anatomy of a Fight”, which does a much better job of explaining Echavarria’s directing style and the amount of work that went into ‘faking’ these fights. Last but definitely least, the horrid half-metal musings of a band known as 12 Stones gets a chance to remind us of how awful the opening song is by offering “Adrenaline” as an actual video. Joy. What would have been nice is a commentary track, Echavarria and his fellow fighters settled down to explain their love of MMA and the sport in general. This would help those outside the mixed martial arts sphere of influence understand the men involved, and the attraction to such brazen brutality.

If all you want is groin-grabbing entertainment that never even attempts to engage you on an intellectual level, then Never Surrender will be your flawless fight club companion. It’s unapologetic at delivering exactly what you expect from a movie made up of MMA members, and it delivers said viciousness with enough panache and bare bodkin to serve its demographic very well indeed. As it continues to put traditional boxing in its place, as it removes the tag of art from anything having to do with the muscular destruction of another human’s being, mixed martial arts moves closer and closer to the kind of professional “status” that wrestling once enjoyed - a massive, multimedia spectacle that was eventually undone by the inability to deny how staged it all was. This genre is far from fake. Still, it has a way to go to achieve universal appeal - and Never Surrender is an excellent example of why.

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