DAWN WELLS: A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SWEETHEART FROM, Y’KNOW, THAT ’60S SHOW

(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.

So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise... the debate continues) (video still)

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise… the debate continues) (video still)

Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.

MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”

It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, "The Second Ginger Grant" (video still)

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (video still)

That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.

THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ’em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!

THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre's 2014 production)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre’s 2014 production)

The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.

Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.


REGRESSION

The much anticipated thriller from filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar makes its DVD and Blu-Ray – as well as digital and On-Demand platforms – debut on May 10, 2106. The film is set in 1990, as a Minnesota youth, Angela (Emma Watson), accuses her father of sexually abusing her as a child. Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) investigates the girl’s allegations and becomes embroiled in tales of repressed memories and Satanic rituals. The palette of this movie is suitably dark and, like Amenabar’s genre-hopping classic, THE OTHERS, the twists and turns here keep you guessing. The plot features elements of horror, crime drama and psychological thriller all rolled into one, as first Angela, then her father begin to remember a past that may or may not be real. Hawke is at his brooding best as Detective Kenner, while the rest of the formidable cast (including David Thewlis) are swept along in his vortex. Watson is doing her best to move past her HARRY POTTER character, as she chooses roles that are far edgier than the sweet Hermione Granger. Just watching the trailer, I’m not sure this will earn her any new fans (or convince her longtime fans that she is anyone other than Hermione). Time… and a full viewing of REGRESSION… will tell.


HORROR OF DRACULA

(HAMMER FILMS/UNIVERSAL PICTURES/WARNER HOME VIDEO (82 minutes; Unrated); 1958/2013)

horror-of-dracula-movie-poster

The power of atmosphere can not be overstated. The act of becoming immersed in a movie is one of the most rewarding and genuine aspects that one can experience whilst viewing a film. Director Terence Fisher realized this to the fullest when helming HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA outside of the US) in 1958, and it’s outcome paid off immensely, with critics and fans alike set to sing the film’s accolades for decades to come.

Following the path tread by it’s predecessor, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the film possesses all of the signature Hammerisms that would prove to be the British production company’s lasting calling cards, IE: vivid color, eroticism, action and a quirky sense of British discernment. These attributes, combined with career defining performances from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, propel the body of work to a preeminent level that very few vampire films have managed to reach. The set design, provided by one Bernard Robinson, is nothing short of breathtaking. Gothic and lavish, Mister Robinson walked a razor thin line between aesthetic beauty and the overwhelmingly grandiose. The artistry and tastefulness in which these pieces were created has, with no doubt, gone on to influence many present day films, not limited to THE OTHERS, THE WOMAN IN BLACK and CRIMSON PEAK.

HORROR OF DRACULA (Melissa Stribling, Christopher Lee) (publicity still)

HORROR OF DRACULA (Melissa Stribling, Christopher Lee) (publicity still)

On the negative side, the film falls prey to a fair amount of melodramatic excess, mostly in the form of overacted sequences from Melissa Stribling. And, while wholly majestic, the score can at times feel a bit forceful and overpowering. Altogether, HORROR OF DRACULA is a seminal horror film that should be able to find a home in any genre fan’s collection. It’s stylish and elegant imagery allow it to retain it’s place among the best the vampire sub genre has to offer.

4 FILM FAVORITES, DVD cover (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

4 FILM FAVORITES, DVD cover (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

HORROR OF DRACULA is currently available as part of a budget-priced DVD collection from Warner Home Video called FOUR FILM FAVORITES: DRACULAS, alongside DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and DRACULA, AD 1972; these and most of the Hammer Studios horror films show up occasionally on the Turner Classic Movie channel (usually during October, as part of their Halloween celebration), as well as being available digitally.


TOKYO TRIBE

(XLRATOR MEDIA/NIKKATSU/FROM FIRST PRODUCTION COMPANY/DJANGO FILM (117 minutes; Unrated); 2015)

TOKYO TRIBE

It is an absolutely inexplicable concept that I would even remotely enjoy a musical movie version of a violent piece of Manga (TOKYO TRIBE 2 by Santa Inoue) about rival gangs on the mean streets of Tokyo, especially one that involves reading… a lot of reading. Buuut… the music is a very appealing mish-mash of Hip-Hop grooves and rock heaviness; the characters are SO over the top that you are allowed to suspend all belief and just let the kaleidoscopic visuals – including some amazingly choreographed fight scenes, including near-comedic levels of ultra-violent acts – assault your optic nerves… in the best way possible. Yeah, sure the whole reading thing is there but, once you get into a groove with that, TOKYO TRIBE isn’t too bad.

TOKYO TRIBE (Makoto Sakaguchi, Nana Seino) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

TOKYO TRIBE (Makoto Sakaguchi, Nana Seino) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

Actually, aside from trying to figure out who was who, the flick, written and directed by the legendary Sion Sono, was pretty cool. The whole thing kicks off in a claustrophobic Bukuro Street on a hot Tokyo night that threatens not only rain, but an earthquake, as well. The narrator (played by Shota Sometani, who delivers all of his lines through raps) moves ghost-like through the throngs, introducing us to the various factions and their leaders, all the while giving us a glimpse into a very grim future. In one telling scene early in the movie, a rookie police officer is told by her partner not to get involved in what is very obviously a drug dealer dispensing his wares; when she confronts the dealer, he tears her clothes off, belittles her and, eventually, kills her. Her partner tells the police dispatcher that everything is okay… nothing going on. According to the raps, there are 23 separate tribes in the city, each working their own territory in an effort to maintain a tenuous treaty; that treaty is threatened by the Buppa gang, a violent and blood-thirsty tribe who want it all.

TOKYO TRIBE (Riki Takeuchi) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

TOKYO TRIBE (Riki Takeuchi) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

The Buppa leader, played by Riki Takeuchi, is cartoonish, a demented and crazy-eyed Wayne Newton look-alike. Bubba’s lusts and desires are fueled by the promise of total power from the High Priest Denden (played by Sion Sono mainstay Denden, the High Priest is either a guiding spirit or one of Bubba’s drug-induced hallucinations); all he has to do is return the High Priest’s daughter, Ericka. One of Bubba’s sons, Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is a sexual deviant who delights in using his victims as furniture… after, of course, they have outlived their usefulness as prostitutes; he sends a van of thugs to procure a few new chairs and end tables into another tribe’s territory, either convincing them to come to a wild party or flat-out kidnapping them. The other son, Merra (Ryohei Suzuki), is more into inflicting as pain on as many people as possible; he has some unstated beef with the leader of Musashiro Tribe, Kai Deguchi (Young Dais), who practices and preaches love, peace and understanding. Basically, all of the ensuing carnage is due to whatever problem Merra has with Kai (don’t worry… we do find out what has him so upset during the climactic battle and, if I may be so bold, it perfectly personifies the gangsta rap culture and gangs, in general). Oh, plus, Nkoi snatches the High Priest’s daughter (Nana Seino) off the street and tosses her into the Buppa brothel, setting off a completely different type of mayhem: When her picture is posted on the brothel’s website, a particularly horny member of Musashiro is off to partake, with Tera (Ryuta Sato), who is respected by all factions, attempting to stop him and, as that has failed, to keep him out of any serious trouble.

TOKYO TRIBE (Denden) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

TOKYO TRIBE (Denden) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

Unbeknownst to either, a trap has been set and, when Kai and the others learn of it, love and peace are out the window. Unfortunately, with 21 other tribes mobilizing, the path is neither easy nor safe. Eventually – because everybody knew it was going to happen – all of the rival gangs come together against Bubba and his hired guns, the Waru, the most vicious gang in all of Japan. The fights are wickedly fun, the choreography and staging wildly imaginative; there are tanks, cannibals, gold-plated pistols, human reading lamps, samurais, earthquakes, giant exhaust fans and… well, you get the idea. There’s even a wizened old waitress, called DJ Grandma (Hisako Ooka), spinning and rapping her doomsday commentary: “Comin’ to ya from the ass-end of Hell/Listen up. This is Hip-Hop!” There is so much that I want to tell you about TOKYO TRIBE, but if I give you any more, I’ll spoil all the fun you have in store when you watch it.

TOKYO TRIBE (Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

TOKYO TRIBE (Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais) (photo courtesy: XLRATOR MEDIA)

Even though there are going to be plenty of kids sixteen and younger that are gonna wanna see this movie, be advised that it – like all of Sono’s previous films – is ultra-violent (generally, in a cartoon fashion but, there are still some fairly brutal scenes) and features quite a few scenes glorifying drug use and even more that objectify young women (though there are also several instances of those young women taking control of their situations and kicking major amounts of butt). Parents, even the trailer is too wild for us to post here so, at the very least, check that out before you decide to let your kids watch.


THE BEATLES: 1+

(APPLE RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP; 2015)

Album

This newly remastered Beatles 1 set, featuring the Beatles’ 27 UK and US chart-topping songs, now comes with a second disc (the “+,” available as either Blu-Ray or DVD), with videos of all 27 number ones. The set is also available with a special third disc, which offers still more videos, including many alternate versions, not to mention a wonderful 124-page booklet with plenty of pictures and descriptions of all the tunes and info for all of the videos. It’s quite a package for fans and also serves as a great introduction to the magic of the Beatles.

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (uncredited photo)

The songs – from 1962’s “Love Me Do to 1970’s “The Long and Winding Road” – take you through the time when the Fab Four dominated the world’s musical landscape, making great music and pushing the envelope as they evolved. Though just about everyone on the face of the planet knows these tunes, the real bonus here is the second, rarities-filled disc of videos with great alternate versions of “Day Tripper,” “Rain” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Seeing the revolutionary film for “Strawberry Fields Forever” had unknowingly prepared us for the upcoming age of the music video; “Penny Lane” is also wonderful.

The earliest videos are from TV appearances or live shows: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert and so forth. One of my personal favorites is from 1968, when the lads did “Hey Jude” on THE DAVID FROST SHOW and the audience came on stage to join in on the “na na na’s.” “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” from the group’s last live public appearance, commonly referred to as “the rooftop concert,” is great, as is “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love,” with Paul, George and Ringo gathering together one final time to create new Beatles music from two John Lennon demos. As a lifelong fan, reliving (or, in some instances, experiencing for the first time) all of these amazing memories certainly gives me much pleasure, as the music of the Beatles continues – after all these years – to bring such joy and happiness to the world.


THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE COMPLETE REMASTERED SERIES

(RLJ ENTERTAINMENT; 2015)

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Since its debut in October, 1961, Carl Reiner’s grand creation, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, has served as a benchmark for quality ensemble comedy… in my humble estimation, matched in quality only by the first two seasons of MASH in the five-and-a-half decades since. The rubbery-boned Van Dyke led the cast as Rob Petrie, the harried head writer for the Alan Brady Show (Brady was played by Reiner himself). Though the show served as a spoof of early television comedy writers, it was also very much a series about family and friends, with the irrepressible Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, occasionally getting herself into some very “Lucy-like” situations, while Rob and Laura dealt out a Ward and June Cleaver type of love, wisdom and guidance to their son, Ritchie (played by Larry Mathews) and, quite often, to Rob’s co-writers, Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell, played by comedic geniuses Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam. Though he appeared in about half of the series’ episodes during its five-season run, a highlight was always Richard Deacon’s irascible Mel Cooley, the show’s producer and Brady’s brother-in-law; Deacon was a master at these types of smarmy, borderline sleazy characters… he also played Fred Rutherford (father of Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford) on another classic, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

Dick Van Dyke became one of television’s greatest fall guys, as evidenced by one of the greatest opening title sequences ever (introduced at the start of the second season), as well as the consummate straight man with his often bewildered, bemused reactions to the anarchy taking place around him; he also got to show off his Broadway and movie background as a song-and-dance man, either with Ms Moore or as part of the ensemble-within-the-ensemble cast of the Alan Brady Show. His flustered everyman served as template for set-upon husbands and fathers for decades, until the family situation comedy paradigm began to shift in the late ’90s. Even though it was obvious that the adorable Moore had comedic chops aplenty and generally played Laura as smart and confident, it would have been almost inconceivable that she would become head of the powerful MTM Enterprises later in her career; one of her most endearing catch phrases, the quavering, high-pitched lament, “Ohhh, Rob!,” is still recognized virtually the world over. The comedic timing and phrasing of former vaudeville pro Rose Marie, radio performer and writer Morey Amsterdam and veteran character actor Richard Deacon (whose character, Mel Cooley, was the butt of Amsterdam’s Buddy Sorrell’s one-line barbs) was impeccable. Whether the plot showed off the Petrie’s family life at home or Rob’s manic office job, you were guaranteed a quality script and incredible acting.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon) (publicity photo)

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon) (publicity photo)

Now, just in time for Christmas, RLJ Entertainment has released the entire series (158 episodes, clocking in at just under 66 hours of classic comedy), newly remastered from the original 35 millimeter negatives, in a twenty-five disc box set, filled with plenty of extras (including the original pilot, “Head of the Family”). The set is priced at just below two-hundred bucks (which is in line with the suggested forty dollar price tag for individual season sets), but I’ve seen it available for as low as a C-note, so do some shopping to find the best price and… treat yourself with a great Christmas present this year with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE COMPLETE REMASTERED SERIES… You will thank yourself for being so kind and thoughtful.


UNCANNY

(RLJ ENTERTAINMENT/SHORELINE ENTERTAINMENT/EMERGENT BEHAVIOR-ACCELERATED MATTER PRODUCTIONS/AMBUSH ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2015)

UNCANNY_DVD_HIC

As much as I love science fiction movies, I’m not big into the whole Artificial Intelligence (AI) thing; cyborgs, robots, androids are okay (Deathlok, that canned dude from LOST IN SPACE, the Vision) but, a lot of times, the attempt to make these types into a “normal” human-like construct just leaves me cold. With that as background, I wasn’t sure about UNCANNY and where it would fall on the spectrum; the advance publicity and trailer promised a creepy sort of stalker thing with the possibility of a very violent second half. Uh… kinda.

UNCANNY (David Clayton Rogers, Mark Webber) (publicity still)

UNCANNY (David Clayton Rogers, Mark Webber) (publicity still)

The story has a rather claustrophobic feel… it mostly takes place in one location (an apartment/suite/laboratory called Workspace 18) with only three characters for roughly ninety-eight percent of the movie. David Kressen (Mark Webber, who strikes me as a younger version of the brilliant Jeffrey Combs) is a reclusive (and amazingly well-adjusted) boy genius who has been left to his own devices for the past ten years, charged with creating the ultimate robotic AI; his roommate, Adam (David Clayton Rogers), is the result of Kressen’s work and has taken his creator’s last name. The introduction of a third individual, reporter (and failed roboticist) Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths), is initially met with trepidation and mild annoyance from David and confusion from Adam. Joy has been sent to conduct a week’s worth of interviews for a feature story on Kressen and his work. She is totally taken aback when David reveals the truth about Adam and, thus, the three embark upon an intellectually stimulating few days; as the continued interaction leads to more intimate feelings between Kressen and Andrews, Adam begins to exhibit some very human reactions: Love, jealousy, confusion and, finally, hate and revenge. By the fourth day, the situation has become a bizarre lovers’ triangle, with Adam infringing upon and, at times, outright sabotaging the others’ time together. Adam also develops some new voyeuristic tendencies, which come to a head when he gives a gift to Joy, in the form of a prototype robotic eye with, naturally (and completely unknown to the receiver), a camera. The better to secretly watch you mediate in your underwear, my dear.

UNCANNY (David Clayton Rogers, Lucy Griffiths, Mark Webber) (publicity still)

UNCANNY (David Clayton Rogers, Lucy Griffiths, Mark Webber) (publicity still)

The whole movie is very quiet and serene, three highly intelligent beings discussing the things that they enjoy most and interacting in the most reasonable fashion imaginable… until the final twenty minutes or so. When Joy discovers what Adam has been up to, she takes Kressen aside to let him know what his creation is capable of; Kressen tells her she shouldn’t worry too much… it’s just Adam adjusting his learning curve and adding new stimuli and knowledge to his matrix. David does, however, confront Adam about his actions; Adam apologizes and – as far as Kressen is concerned – the incident is forgotten. Adam hasn’t forgotten and, when he tries to stick his tongue down Andrews’ throat, she objects and David chastises Adam, sending him to his room like a misbehaving child; a very childlike outburst from Adam stuns creator and reporter alike. That’s really the extent of the violence, though there is a nice (if rather anticipated) twist-ending that delivers the “evil corporate construct” message like a very quiet sucker-punch to the solar-plexus. That message, delivered by Rainn Wilson as the deliciously sinister Simon Castle, Kressen’s benefactor/employer, will send a chill down your spine and have you looking over your shoulder as you conduct your day-to-day life for, at least, a few days. And, that, friends, is what a good piece of science-fiction should do… leave you questioning the reality of the subject matter at hand; first-time screenwriter Shahin Chandrasoma (who is a surgeon specializing in robotic urology) and acclaimed director/editor Matthew Leutwyler have certainly accomplished that.

UNCANNY (Lucy Griffiths, David Clayton Rogers) (publicity still)

UNCANNY (Lucy Griffiths, David Clayton Rogers) (publicity still)

UNCANNY succeeded in holding my attention and stimulating my mind much more than I would have thought possible, given the subject matter and the subtly delicate approach. This kind of story probably isn’t for everybody… teens and young kids will undoubtedly be bored out of their gourds waiting for something, ANYTHING to happen and, by the time it does, will probably have given up on the whole thing. However, if YOU stay with it, I think that you’ll be grateful you didn’t give up on UNCANNY too soon. The movie is available on DVD and as a digital download.


SOME KIND OF HATE

(IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT/CALIBER MEDIA/DESTROY ALL ENTERTAINMENT/REVEK ENTERTAINMENT (83 minutes; Unrated); 2015)

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Today’s version of the slasher movie is very rarely a nuanced thing; these flicks are more about the body count, finding unique ways to raise that body count, as well as making sure that a fair number of the bodies being counted are either scantily clad or completely unclad… there is generally no rhyme or reason for the slaughter, as the slasher (rather human, spirit, demon or other) just shows up and starts hacking. I’m not going to tell you that certain aspects of the genre are not here in spades with SOME KIND OF HATE but, the reasons are well-placed and well-thought-out. The writers (Brian DeLeeuw and Adam Egypt Mortimer co-wrote the screenplay) original concept and script was titled BULLIED, so there is much more of a message here than the usual “let’s go to the woods, get drunk and screw” mentality of one of these things. Obviously, bullying is a horrible problem pervading our society, particularly our school systems. It isn’t a new thing… there have always been older, bigger, richer, prettier, whatever type of people who feel a need to push and belittle those they deem to be beneath them; sometimes a bully is someone who is so insecure that they attack others just to feel good about themselves. The problem – and the symptoms – seems to be getting worse, with the number of victims rising daily. Even without the vengeful spirit aspect of this movie, the under-riding theme is enough of a horror story on its own merits. This ain’t no AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL or one of those “Very Special Episodes,” though… there’s too much blood.

SOME KIND OF HATE (Ronen Rubinstein) (photo credit BENJI BAKSHI)

SOME KIND OF HATE (Ronen Rubinstein) (photo credit BENJI BAKSHI)

The lead character, Lincoln, is your standard issue dark and brooding angst-ridden type… a quiet, artistic tortured soul who is abused at home and bullied at school (played to the quiet, brooding hilt by Ronen Rubenstein, who explained in a recent interview that, while he was never really bullied, one of his friends was bullied to the point that he committed suicide). Lincoln tries to stay out of the way of the big-man-on-campus, spoiled jock who delights in torturing those he deems too different (Lincoln is an “art fag” who doesn’t look or dress like everybody else); the loutish tormentor – his friends and hangers-on trailing behind like puppies – finds Lincoln alone and pushes the kid over the edge. Of course, when Lincoln retaliates, he is the one deemed a troublemaker and he is the one sentenced to a rehabilitation facility for teens with anti-social proclivities. The secluded “camp” is one of those “let’s get in touch with our feelings,” hippie psuedo-religious places for “troubled youth” that MAKE you wanna go all Jason Voorhees just to shut up the directors and counselors. The name of this place? Why, Mind’s Eye Academy, of course. There are the usual group of screw-ups and misfits, all stunningly beautiful, most with darker problems and secrets than the things that had them sent to the MEA; naturally, they have all learned to play the game and fooled the staff into believing they have assimilated. Lincoln is befriended by another newcomer, his bunk-mate Isaac (Spencer Breslin), a sorta boastful, obnoxious kid who ended up at the camp for “porn hacking” the computer system at his school. Everyone definitely is not copacetic with the new kid, though, as a tough named Willie (Maestro Harrell) and his goons start pushing Lincoln to see how long it will take before he goes crazy and attacks them. Ah… good times. Good times.

SOME KIND OF HATE Ronen Rubinstein, Grace Phipps, Spencer Breslin) (photo credit: BENJI BAKSHI)

SOME KIND OF HATE Ronen Rubinstein, Grace Phipps, Spencer Breslin) (photo credit: BENJI BAKSHI)

Lincoln finds solace and a kindred spirit in another societal reject, Kaitlin (played by Grace Phipps, a refugee from Disney, who starred in the tween-sation TEEN BEACH MOVIE and its sequel), a bad girl cheerleader whose coping mechanism was/is cutting; Kaitlin is another kid with a secret… she has first person knowledge of what bullying can lead to but, she doesn’t share with Lincoln until much later. After the third altercation with Willie and his minions, which sees Lincoln lashing out and hitting his tormentor, Lincoln is drawn to the basement of an old building, just to get away from everything and to get his thoughts together. Still enraged, he blurts out, “I wish they were all dead!” That phrase brings forth the spirit of Moira (another former Disney star, Sierra McCormick, who played the oddball genius Olive in a series called ANT Farm; she may also be remembered for her role as Lilith for a couple of episodes during season four of SUPERNATURAL, her only other appearance within the horror genre), a former student at the Academy; Moira was driven to suicide by the taunts and bullying of her peers and now seeks vengeance for herself and for other victims of bullying. Part of the appeal of such movies is discovering how and why violent things start happening, so I don’t want to spoil the fun for you; let’s just say, that soon after Moira’s appearance, Willie is found dead, with deep cuts all over his body and a razor blade in his hand. The first sign that things are not all sunshine and light at the Mind’s Eye Academy occurs as a sleazy sheriff’s deputy comes to investigate Willie’s apparent suicide: The deputy tells Krauss, the assistant director of the facility (Noah Segan), “It’s an hour drive – each way – every time I gotta come out here to pick up another dead kid.”

SOME KIND OF HATE (Sierra McCormick) (photo credit: BENJI BAKSHI)

SOME KIND OF HATE (Sierra McCormick) (photo credit: BENJI BAKSHI)

As the body count starts to rise, Kaitlin begins to think that Lincoln is the one killing the bullys; he tells her and Isaac about Moira but, Kaitlin has her doubts until she follows Lincoln back to the basement, where he confronts Moira and begs her to stop. Moira, once again feeling betrayed, tells the boy, “I’m yours Lincoln… and you’re mine.” Now a believer, Kaitlin seeks out Moira and the two bond over a bit of self-loathing and bloodletting, as the vengeful spirit recruits the other to help with the devastation. Now, I know that you guys are pretty sharp, so you’ve probably already guessed a lot about this movie that I didn’t share here, but… I think that there are still enough scares and more than enough buckets of blood to keep you engaged ’til the end. And, if you stick around, there’s a quick tease to let us all know that there will be a sequel. While the underlying current (bullying) is something that the kids should be made aware of, I’m going to suggest that you keep this one away from them until they’re sixteen, at least. The flick is available on DVD or Blu-Ray, as a digital download or Video-On-Demand.

I had the chance to speak to the star of SOME KIND OF HATE, Ronen Rubenstein regarding this movie and another project that will be premiering soon. It’s called CONDEMNED and is in select theaters on November 13. The movie also stars Dylan Penn as a rich kid, squatting with her boyfriend in an abandoned building. Unfortunately, we had horrible reception (he lost signal at least once), which means that I wasn’t able to save enough of our conversation to post the whole thing here. However, he did have this to say about CONDEMNED: “It’s funny, it’s gory; some scenes make you want to throw up, some scenes make you want to laugh.” You had me at “throw up,” Ronen. We’ll definitely be looking for that one soon. Until then, here’s the trailer:


TO PROTECT AND SERVE: THE DAVID KEITH INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTERVIEW

David Keith (publicity photo)

David Keith (publicity photo)

So, the press release for the independent action flick AWAKEN shows up in my inbox and, I’m thinking, “Okay… the premise sounds promising but, I’m so afraid it’s gonna be nothing more than a distaff version of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.” But, then, the clincher… the movie features one of my favorite character actors, David Keith. And… he’s doing interviews! How could I possibly turn this one down?

Obviously, I couldn‘t and… I didn’t. So, before we take an in-depth look at the movie, here’s my conversation with actor David Keith. While Mister Keith may not really be as intense as many of his characters, he is nonetheless a passionate performer and a compassionate human being.

THE MULE: It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Since you’re on a little bit of a schedule here, let’s talk about AWAKEN and then a couple of other questions. How did you become involved in this project?

DAVID: The producer, Natalie Burn, is an old friend of mine and she asked if I would do her a favor and come play a small role in the movie.

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn, David Keith) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: You said “small role.” It is a rather small role but, in my mind anyway, fairly pivotal to the story.

DAVID: Yeah… you can’t really harvest organs without a surgeon.

THE MULE: Right. I didn’t wanna give anything away. I guess I shoulda read the back of the box… it may very well tell us what the bad guys are kinda up to. I got the feeling that, possibly, your character wasn’t so much into the way things were being done, but you were just there to help where you could.

DAVID: Well, all he’s washed up. He’s probably lost his license, he’s a drunk and he’s just trying to live out the rest of his days, making some money. But, he does want to do it right. If it’s going to be done, he certainly has given up on the moral question of what he’s doing but, he doesn’t want these kids brought in dead, ’cause then the organs die. He wants to harvest the organs while the person’s still breathing. Dead makes it a little worse; that makes his job work better… you take a live organ over somebody who’s dead or beaten up.

THE MULE: So, this whole thing… there are bad-assess wall-to-wall. I mean, from, I guess, former bad-asses to current bad-asses to future bad-asses… everybody just kinda comes in and pretty much kicks butt and worries about the fall-out later. It’s gotta be fun to work on something that’s almost wall-to-wall action.

DAVID: Well, of course, I represent the part where there isn’t much action. Most of the fighting and action that you see went on when I wasn’t on set. Now, there were some fight scenes shot while I was waiting to shoot my scenes, so I saw a couple of those things. I was only there three or four days and those were the days that they were shooting my scenes, which was a lot more dialogue. I was involved in the dialogue scenes more than in the action.

THE MULE: Okay. So, you didn’t get to actually partake, so to speak, of any of the bad-assery.

DAVID: Not really. No.

LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)

LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT (David Keith) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I’ve gotta tell you that one of my all-time favorite episodes of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT is the one that you played the character “Hawk.”

DAVID: Yeah… I was kind of hoping they would make a spin-off of that character.

THE MULE: Yeah. It could have been a recurring character or a spin-off.

DAVID: I did do another LAW AND ORDER after that but, it was CRIMINAL INTENT and a completely different character.

HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)

HEARTBREAK HOTEL (David Keith) (publicity still)

THE MULE: You have done… so many great things through the years and, I guess, what may be the ultimate chick flick, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Do you have any favorite roles or favorite movies or TV series that you’ve worked on through the years?

DAVID: Yes. My favorite role was Elvis Presley in HEARTBREAK HOTEL because I’m a frustrated rock star and I got to the singing myself, go into a recording studio and perform onstage. My two favorite television shows were THE CLASS, which was a sit-com, 2006 and 7 and that was just really a riot… an absolutely hilarious show that didn’t make it. And then, LONE STAR, which was probably the best writing of any project I’ve ever worked on… in any medium. And, that show… a few episodes on Fox and then it got yanked. It was brilliant. Basically, those were the shows that were pearls before swine, in my opinion. They were too smart for the average television audience.

THE MULE: That seems to happen a lot.

DAVID: Um-hm. It has to achieve a certain level of mediocrity in television if you’re going to be successful.

THE MULE: Maybe it’s because people just can’t commit to something like that. Know what I mean?

DAVID: They want to multitask. They need to be able to take phone calls while the show’s on or go get a sandwich. And, if it’s multifaceted and has any sort of depth or texture or tapestry to it, then it demands your full attention. If you make a television show that’s as good as a movie, you’re not gonna want to get up and go get your popcorn. That was the fate of both of those shows, I think. Too smart, too clever.

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (David Keith, Louis Gossett Junior) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Too nuanced for their own good. So, where are you headed after this… after AWAKEN? Do you have anything else lined up?

DAVID: Well, I’ve had some minor medical issues that kept me out of show business for the past few months but, there’s always something around the corner. I’m enjoying being a Mister Mom.

THE MULE: That’s a completely different lifestyle, isn’t it?

DAVID: Right. I also work for a charity called National Association To Protect Children or protect.org. That’s basically what I do with most of my time now.

THE MULE: That’s great. I know you have another interview in a few minutes, so I’ll let you go. Just let me say that I like the movie… like watching the old stuff on TV or DVDs and I really appreciate your time.

DAVID: Alrighty. Thanks.

PART TWO: THE REVIEW

AWAKEN

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/7HEAVEN PRODUCTIONS/ARCHSTONE PICTURES (89 minutes; Rated R); 2015)

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Billie Kope (played by Natalie Burn, whose most high-profile appearance to date is probably THE EXPENDABLES 3), on a search for her sister, who disappeared in Mexico, finds herself alone and very confused when she wakes up on the beach of a remote island. As she begins to regain her bearings, she is surprised by the screams of a frightened young woman; nearly walking to a trap, she is saved and befriended by a group of people who have also been kidnapped and transported to the island for some nefarious reason. This group is populated by a number of well-known character actors, including Phillip Tan (as Todd), Edward Furlong (as Berto), Augie Duke (as Chloe) and Robert Davi (as Quintin). As Billie soon learns, her abduction (and those of the others) are linked to a sinister group of black ops soldiers, who are seemingly hunting them merely for the sport of it. What’s really happening is an intricate organ harvesting operation involving – and you had to see this one coming – her sister, Kat (Chrisa Campbell).

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)

AWAKEN (Natalie Burn) (publicity still)

The plot – a twist on the Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” – is one that’s turned up over and over again in movies, television (including an episode of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, with Rory Calhoun starring as “The Hunter”), literature and comic books but, with enough of a spin to keep it interesting. Aside from the actors already mentioned, the cast is filled with recognizable faces (if not names): Vinnie Jones as the ruthless black op leader, Michael Pare as his second in command, Jason London as the head of the organ harvesting cartel and Michael Copon as the love interest/hero of the piece. Daryl Hannah appears as Mao, a “customer” searching for a liver donor with the proper chi for her daughter; her performance is over-the-top and cartoonish, the one weak link in an otherwise solid cast. Conversely, David Keith, as Walsh, the disgraced doctor hired to perform the surgeries, gives a nuanced, believeable performance as he struggles with what his life has become and, ultimately, with saving as many lives as he can to atone for his past (and current) indiscretion. Miss Burn (who is also writer, producer, casting director, as well as doing her own stunts) is definitely easy on the eyes, kinda like a cross between Lucy Lawless and Juliette Lewis, only… softer.

AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)

AWAKEN (Daryl Hannah) (publicity still)

The action sequences tend to work better than the rest of the story, especially the dialogue which occasionally borders on the soap-ish (as in operas). The one exception is the final shoot-out, which like Miss Hannah’s acting, comes across rather like cartoon violence (but, honestly… I do likes me some mindless cartoon violence). Having said that, AWAKEN does manage to engage and hold your attention; the actors are certainly nice to look at (with the possible exceptions of Jones and Daz Crawford as Stitch). The movie works equally well as an action/adventure dude’s night-in, as a chick flick or even as a date night feature. Some of the concepts may be to advanced for kids younger than twelve and the R rating is due to the violence. My recommendation? Suspend all semblance of believability and strap yourself in for a fun ride. AWAKEN is available in digital, DVD and Video-On-Demand.


DEBUG

(KETCHUP ENTERTAINMENT/COPPERHEART ENTERTAINMENT (86 minutes; Unrated); 2015)

Debug 2D

When actor David Hewlett decided to write a Sci-Fi movie, I’m sure the concept looked pretty good on paper and – you know what? – even with a couple of black holes in the plot and unspoken back stories (due, no doubt, to time and budgetary constraints), the finished product looks pretty good, too. Hewlett’s script is equal parts 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY, TRON, WAR GAMES and just about every slasher movie ever made; toss in some nifty KILL BILL style fight scenes and a cast of beautiful – if limited – actors and you have a rollicking good time of a space opera with DEBUG.

DEBUG (Tenika Davis, Jason Mamoa) (publicity still)

DEBUG (Tenika Davis, Jason Mamoa) (publicity still)

The concept is relatively simple: Convicts on a work release derelict spaceship clean-up detail (got that?) are dispatched for one final debugging assignment before returning to lock-up; the debugging is of the computer kind, as long dormant vessels with still-functioning systems tend to become infected with various viruses and need to be cleaned before a reboot and a return to active service. We get a glimpse of just how corrupt the system is in a prologue that sees the sole survivor on-board, one of 1,200 prisoners (a terror-fraught cameo by Tenika Davis), stalked by a physical manifestation of the infected security program (malevolently played by future Aquaman, Jason Momoa). Suffice to say, bad things happen. The cleaners are under the supervision of a no nonsense (though somehow good-natured) guard named Capra (Adrian Holmes), who gets hijacked by the virus, doing its gruesome bidding. Capra’s eventual demise is kind of a side-splitter.

DEBUG (Adrian Holmes) (publicity still)

DEBUG (Adrian Holmes) (publicity still)

Of course, each member of the convict crew has their own little secret: Lara (Sidney Leeder) and team leader Mel (Kerr Hewitt) are – if not romantically – sexually involved; Diondra (Jaydn Wong) is looking for a quick score, but ends up with a splitting headache for her troubles; Samson’s exit (and, by extension, CARRIE’s Kyle Mac) was so quick, I’m not too sure I can even tell you what his secret was or what happened to him; tough-as-nails scarey chick Kaida (who really has a heart of gold, much like – I’m sure – the actress who portrays her, Jeananne Goossen) is all business, as she hacks into the rogue system for a bit of virtual butt kicking; James (played by Adam Butcher, Momoa’s co-star in WOLVES) is a former cadet whose dreams were smashed after pleading guilty to a cyber-crime committed by his younger brother. Each, seemingly working against the others, are given their own little vignette, as they are assigned different sections of the ship to work on; most interact with various “creature comfort” programs, all under the control of the evil “I Am” (Momoa), leading to varying degrees of pain and suffering. The final confrontation with the I Am and the ultimate sacrifice by one team member is right up there with other such selfless gestures for which the genre is so well known (Spock’s final moments in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN remain untouchable in that area).

DEBUG (Jeananne Goossen) (publicity still)

DEBUG (Jeananne Goossen) (publicity still)

There are a plethora of direct-to-DVD Science-Fiction movies released every week, most of which are totally forgettable and many of those are utterly regrettable; DEBUG rises above the dross with an imaginative script and cold, antiseptic sets that add to the creepy machines-in-control aspect; the small blasts of color (the convicts’ orange jumpsuits and, yeah… a whole lot of blood) tend to be rather jarring against the bright lights and stark white of the spaceship. This is a movie that would have benefited from another 20 to 30 minutes. That’s something that I very rarely say about any movie but, here, the extra time would have definitely made an already strong feature into a great one, allowing the characters to be fleshed out more fully (we don’t really know why most of the crew are in prison or what motivates their actions on this mission), as well as offering a more in-depth examination of just how the ship’s computers became so corrupt.

DEBUG is unrated but, due to some strong language and some fairly brutal scenes of violence and death (a couple of which are quite imaginative), this one probably shouldn’t be viewed by anyone younger than, say, twelve. It’s not really a great date flick or family movie night fare… in fact, it may not be anything that the female of the species will find appealing at all. Having said that, it’ll play really well for a bunch of guys just hanging out in a man cave somewhere.