Friday, October 21, 2011

MONSTER BRAWL - Toronto After Dark Film Festival (2011 Edition) Opening Gala at Toronto Underground Cinema

Monster Brawl (2011) dir. Jesse T. Cook
Starring: Dave Foley, Art Hindle, Robert Maillet, Jimmy Hart, Herb Dean, Kevin Nash, Lance Henriksen

RATING (out of ****) ***

By Greg Klymkiw

Who doesn't love Mexican wrestling movies? You don't? Well, go to hell, then. Santo, Blue Demon and Rodrigo the Hippie, however, are pussies compared to monsters. How about a movie that has wrasslin' monsters? Yes, you read correctly. MONSTERS THAT WRESTLE. What's not to like? Monster Brawl is unquestionably one of the most insane, hilarious, original gore-fests I have seen in ages. It's Canadian - which is no surprise given the wealth of truly insane films that come from this country. It's also no shocker that it's entertaining as all get out since it appears to have avoided dining too deeply at the trough of taxpayer financing.

The plot? Well, there really isn't one. (At least, not much of one.) Does this matter when the movie is full of monsters, babes and head-stomping carnage? My question is rhetorical. Don't bother answering. The movie is not dreary, depressing, dour, desperately arty nor a downer. In fact, the only downer is that it could use more babes, but the babes it's blessed with are delectably babe-o-licious!

What we've got here is 90 minutes of a world wrestling championship taking place on unholy ground in a lonely cemetery after the sun goes down. It is being broadcast to the world, but a live audience is not allowed to attend as the dead could rise from their graves at anytime and feed on them. (A great low-budget narrative hook to avoid paying for scads of extras.) We get colour commentary from a blustery sports broadcaster (The Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley) and a former monster wrestler (Art Hindle from scads of great Canuckle flicks like The Brood, Black Christmas and Face Off).

Hindle, by the way, is especially brilliant in the film. Playing a rather dapper Bigfoot who has integrated nicely into contemporary society, he's more or less a typical back country inbred redneck. Hindle chews the scenery, but in a manner that is wholly credible. He might be a Bigfoot monster, but in his heart, he's a mere country cousin to Zeke, Zebulon and the entire kit and kaboodle of your garden variety pioneer family.

The conceit of the movie is ridiculously simple, but winning. The wrestling event - featuring several bouts between a variety of monsters (a werewolf, a mummy, the frankenstein monster and, among others, the delightfully monickered Witch Bitch) unfurls as a live broadcast. Between bouts we get documentary-style introductions to each of the creatures and their recruitment to this astounding battle. What's so inspired about this format is that it's like one of those live pay-for-view events that's broadcast over regular television or appears like opera, theatre and wrestling events that now play on a big screen in mainstream multiplexes. As such, an audience for the movie could have one hell of a great time and cheer on their favourite monsters and/or boo the creatures they detest.

Added to this mixture are appearances from such famed wrestling and fighting game stalwarts like Jimmy "The Mouth Of The South" Hart (flanked by two eye-popping babes who preen and gyrate appropriately and keep looking directly into the camera as Jimmy introduces each monster), Herb Dean (who comes to a most delightful end), Kevin Nash who delivers a genuinely great comic turn as straight-faced rogue military man experimenting with some truly horrendous fighting machines and the jaw-droppingly enormous Robert Maillet (the Über-Immortal berserker in Zack Snyder's 300) who makes a perfect Frankenstein monster. Oh, and the voiceovers are delivered with suitable portent by Lance FUCKING Henriksen!

Is this cool, or what?

On casting alone, this picture deserves kudos. It's the sort of nuttiness one expects from low budget genre movies in terms of how they should be populated with a good variety of familiar faces - pop-culture icons, character actors and comedians.

I have a few minor quibbles with the picture. The wrestling matches themselves appear within a ground-level fighting ring located on a wonderfully designed graveyard that feels like it resides in Ed Wood Land. Alas, too many of the shots of the fight action are composed from outside of the ring so that compositionally, our view is annoyingly obstructed with the ropes of the ring itself. There simply aren't enough shots from inside of the ring. There also aren't enough wide shots that hold on what appears to be some terrific fight choreography.

On the film's budget, I'm aware that some truly spectacular God shots from directly over the ring might have proven beyond the filmmaker's means, but given the fact that this was a relatively controlled low budget shoot within an obvious warehouse studio, it would have been extremely easy to cheat any number of higher angle shots which could have been used to provide a sense of breadth to the fights, but also put emphasis on the fight choreography itself rather than creating almost ALL of the drive of the fights through editing. The number of shots used is impressive, however this fashionable, but to my mind, lazy manner many fight scenes are presented (even in huge budgeted Hollywood movies that should know better) detracts from the dramatic resonance of the fights.

And sure, you might think - "dramatic resonance"? What the fuck is Klymkiw on about? It's a fucking monster wrestling movie, for Christ's sake! Well, the best fights are those in which we have some dramatic stakes in those doing the battles. The Monster Brawl screenplay simply and rather smartly provides any number of story and character beats that allow for this - especially through the introductory segments used for each of the monsters (even the play-by-play colour analysis is blessed with such moments). The bottom line is that a series of entertaining fights between the monsters could have ascended to dizzying heights with a more traditional approach - a few wider overhead shots that held longer on the choreography, far more wide medium shots IN the ring, a judicious use of closeups and through the ropes shots and only during key moments in the fight should the filmmaker have utilized a requisite flurry of cuts. God knows, a "cutty" approach to any scene can work wonders, but these cuts need almost to be planned meticulously as part of the mise-en-scene.

This, of course, is not just something that young filmmakers make the mistake of doing, but you see it all the time in humungously budgeted movies. Yes, I mean YOU, Michael Bay!

Fights are drama. Every blow, every move, every view should be treated as a dramatic beat. Doing so allows for much more successful visceral thrills. Shawn Levy in Real Steel handled this perfectly - even down to seeking inspiration from John Avildsen's exquisite approach to the final boxing match between Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Stallone's own directorial touches during the fight with Drago in Rocky IV. This is where director Cook would have been able to improve things. A careful study of great boxing and wrestling matches in films - great films like The Set-Up, Body and Soul, Raging Bull, the Rocky pictures and even Stallone's brilliant, highly underrated Paradise Alley - would have gone a long way in giving Cook an opportunity to storyboard (even in a rudimentary fashion) all his fights with cuts in mind.

What IS exceptional about the fight sequences in Monster Brawl, however, is the superb sound design, mixing and sound cutting which more than makes up for some of the visual deficiencies. (These deficiencies don't, however, extend to the first-rate art direction and astounding makeup and special effects.)

The erratic visual approach to the fights - which, I believe is more a product of the manic editing of the fights than the actual coverage of the action (which seems bounteous: Cook is clearly a talented filmmaker in this respect) - has a wearying effect. The running time is short, but the movie occasionally feels like it's going on far longer than it should. This is precisely because of the lack of wider shots and the director (who also served as editor) not trusting the coverage he already had. Allowing even a variety of the shots far more breathing space would have worked wonders.

All this is to say, however, that I still loved the film and my only frustration is seeing - with the benefit of objective eyes - how a good picture could have been great.

Monster Brawl is, at the end of the day, a fabulous achievement and sadly, I lament the woeful theatrical exhibition scene such films have to compete in. In the late 70s and early 80s, when I programmed a whacko art house in Winnipeg and bought films for independent exhibitors, Monster Brawl would have been exactly the sort of film that would have had all the cult-friendly characteristics to play forever and repeatedly on a big screen. Its very structure lends itself to being seen on a big screen with a huge audience (like the one I watched it with at its opening gala performance at Toronto After Dark).

This is precisely the kind of low budget feature film that can put filmmakers on the map - especially Canadian filmmakers. Too many young filmmakers in this country get carried away with the (admittedly fine) auteuristic tradition so that we get far too many "tweener" pictures - too lightweight and/or too dreary to be truly entertaining. Cook, on the other hand, roots his work in genre, finds a clever way of making his meagre dollars stretch and, at least on the surface, does not compromise his vision due to budget and in fact, makes use of its low price-tag as a virtue.

Monster Brawl is nothing if not entertaining and that in itself is a grand achievement on any budget, in any country and in any genre. For this reason alone, I'm expecting genuinely great work from Cook in the future.

My hope is that some enterprising distributors and exhibitors - both domestically and internationally - will give Monster Brawl what it needs - a big-screen venue with an audience and furthermore, allow for the necessary word of mouth to create a genuine cult sensation. On October 7 of this year, Twitch Film reported that Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada secured the Canadian home entertainment rights for the picture (and its production company Foresight's other genre picture Exit Humanity) for the Canadian home entertainment market. While Anchor Bay is a perfect company for that end of things, this movie will have far more potential to rake in dough if they struck an additional deal with Foresight for theatrical exhibition. Anchor Bay could then either oversee and implement a proper theatrical release, or, at the very least, strike a service deal with a theatrical distributor to do it. That said, I think this could only work if there was a very concerted effort to BUILD the audience. A perfect marriage would, I think occur between Anchor Bay and the Cineplex Corporation through their Front Row Centre Events. Use a series of special showings all over Canada as Friday-Saturday midnight movie "platforms" for an eventual full-fledged theatrical release. This might take some elbow grease - something lacking in the current theatrical marketplace.

Anchor Bay is a company that's been on the forefront of home entertainment for a long, long time. They've proven to be well ahead of the pack in terms of mastering, packaging and promoting their titles in the home entertainment market. They've also proven how to wring mega-dollars out of fans by issuing umpteen different versions/packages of the same movie. I, for one, am one of those suckers who has happily shelled out for the several quadrillion versions of the The Evil Dead films. I know these guys know how to sell. If any company can wring every conceivable shekel out of monster-hungry fans, it's Anchor Bay. I reiterate, though. THIS MOVIE NEEDS A REAL, LIVE AUDIENCE. IT NEEDS TO BE PLATFORMED AS A SPECIAL EVENT AND THEN BE RELEASED THEATRICALLY - AND WIDE!!!

So here it is - I throw down my gauntlet! I challenge Anchor Bay to engage in what I detailed above.

Anchor Bay: Will you take up this challenge? Will you have the necessary right stuff to do the right thing?

I extend the same gauntlet to the Cineplex Entertainment Corp.? Will you have the right stuff to provide proper venues and the time/effort needed to make this a success?

Ah well, due to my cynicism about the current theatrical scene, I won't hold my breath on this, but I will hold out some hope that the abovementioned dream scenario is implemented.

Stranger things have happened.

After all, Monster Brawl got made in the first place.

That's mighty strange, indeed.

Strange is good.

Monster Brawl was the opening night Gala presentation of the 2011 Toronto After Dark Film Festival.


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