Tuesday, 31 January 2012

MONSTER BRAWL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Canuck Foresight Delivers Brawl To End All

Monster Brawl (2011)
dir. Jesse T. Cook

Starring: Dave Foley, Art Hindle, Robert Maillet, Jimmy Hart, Herb Dean, Kevin Nash, Lance Henriksen

Review 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!

Rachelle Wilde, one of Monster Brawl's
delectably babe-o-licious babes,
with yours truly!!!
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 was the opening night Gala presentation of the 2011 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada.