Thursday, January 18, 2018

Retro Review: BEYOND REASON (1985)

(US - 1985)

Written and directed by Telly Savalas. Cast: Telly Savalas, Diana Muldaur, Laura Johnson, Marvin Laird, Bob Basso, Walter Brooke, Barney Phillips, Douglas Dirkson, Tony Burton, Biff Elliot, Rita Marie Carr, Jason Ronard, Lilyan Chauvin, Toni Lawrence, Susan Myers, Kathy Bendett, Paul Gale, Lee Terri, Debra Feuer, Melissa Prophet, Denise DuBarry, Priscilla Barnes. (PG, 88 mins)

After over a decade of being a jobbing character actor in the US and in Europe (and getting a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1962's BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ), Telly Savalas became a pop culture phenemenon with the success of the CBS cop series KOJAK in 1973. KOJAK ran for five seasons, during which time Savalas was everywhere, appearing on talk shows, awards shows, variety shows, CIRCUS OF THE STARS, Dean Martin's celebrity roasts, you name it. Kojak's lollipops became synonymous with Savalas, and the detective's "Who loves ya, baby?" was one of the most iconic catchphrases of its day. Savalas had the clout to do whatever he wanted and nobody stopped him. He released two albums, 1974's Telly and 1976's Who Loves Ya, Baby? and had a minor hit single with a novelty spoken word cover of  Bread's "If," and, a few years later, a cover of Don Williams' "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" topped the charts in Switzerland. He wanted to direct a few episodes of KOJAK, so CBS let him direct a few episodes of KOJAK. He had a lavish lifestyle, gambled all over the world, traveled with an entourage, and with his shaved head and macho demeanor, he became an unlikely sex symbol and one of the most instantly recognizable celebrities on the planet. That image made him the perfect pitchman for Player's Club in the '80s and '90s. It wasn't just a role: for a brief window in time, Telly Savalas was the ultimate player.

As can be the case when someone becomes a phenomenal success, no one in that person's inner circle is willing to step forward and tell them no. By all accounts, Savalas knew he was the fucking man and always enjoyed it, but he was loyal to his friends and didn't let his newfound stratospheric fame turn him into an asshole. During his downtime between the fourth and fifth--and ultimately final--season of KOJAK, Savalas decided he wanted to become an auteur. With the backing of his longtime friend, producer Howard Koch, Savalas wrote, directed, and starred in BEYOND REASON. Filmed in 1977 under the title MATI ("Mati" is the Greek term for "evil eye"---symbolism!), BEYOND REASON was Savalas' shot at becoming a serious, respected filmmaker. He stars as Dr. Nicholas Mati, an unconventional psychiatrist who gambles with his patients, believes "love" is the cure for all, and allows a certain degree of freedom in both the ward of patients he's treating and in the class he teaches. He's happily married to Elaine (Diana Muldaur, saddled with a thankless role), and they have a teenage daughter named Penelope (Susan Myers, best known for the 1977 made-for-TV CARRIE ripoff THE SPELL). But Mati's life soon begins to unravel after a heated conversation over treatment philosophies with med student Leslie Valentine (future DALLAS and FALCON CREST co-star Laura Johnson). He's called up to the roof of the hospital where a stranger (Paul Gale) takes a dive off the building right in front of him, and shortly after, he starts seeing things that aren't there, and his disorientation escalates to the point where he breaks into Leslie's apartment and is almost shot by her roommate Ann (Rita Marie Carr). He begins to think Leslie is trying to drive him insane, especially when he sees a framed photo on her wall showing her with the roof jumper. He keeps telling the police that Leslie witnessed the suicide but no one can recall seeing her. Bizarre hallucinations and cryptic clues ("You're the courier of love...but it's not that simple!") haunt him, until nothing makes sense anymore. That goes for Dr. Mati as well as the viewer.

It's obvious Savalas was trying to fashion his own ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST with all the psych ward shenanigans and his attempt to be a "fun" version of Nurse Ratched, and work it into an ill-advised Hitchcockian setting, but adding to the confusion is an uncredited and then-unknown Priscilla Barnes replacing Johnson as Leslie for a few fleeting shots. Barnes was originally cast as Leslie before being replaced by Johnson at some point, but it's never quite clear why Barnes is still clearly visible in several shots, other than Savalas might've seen Luis Bunuel's THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE right before filming and thought the "two women alternating playing the same character" would be pretentious enough for him to be taken seriously, or (more likely) he just fucked up and left her in the movie. It's almost like a psychological thriller or maybe even a horror film is trying to break out with BEYOND REASON, but Savalas never pulls the film's seemingly random plot elements together. It's assembled in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, so much so that I'm not really sure if the twist ending really is a twist ending, with the end result possibly being a precursor to SHUTTER ISLAND but the climax is so confusingly presented that it's impossible to tell. To Savalas' credit, there's a few interesting shot compositions where it shows he might've been paying attention to directors like Mario Bava (LISA AND THE DEVIL) and Alberto De Martino (SCENES FROM A MURDER) during his early '70s Italian sojourn. There's also one very striking dissolve from the guy diving off the roof to an eerie, atmospheric shot of Mati's colleague Vincent (Marvin Laird) walking in silhouette down a dimly lit corridor toward the camera, but beyond those fleeting moments of inspiration and style, BEYOND REASON is an almost unwatchable train wreck for about 87 of its 88 interminable minutes.

Savalas' 1974 debut album Telly.

late-night on June 24, 1986
It's the worst kind of vanity project, with no one on the set pulling Savalas aside and telling him what isn't working. Savalas the filmmaker is so concerned with directing Savalas the actor to an Oscar that he lets him just run wild. Savalas could ham it up like the best of them, especially in his European films, as anyone who' seen his third act hijacking of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing cult classic HORROR EXPRESS or his truly insane performance in the profoundly uncomfortable REDNECK can attest. But in BEYOND REASON, his mannered performance is just bizarre. He keeps grabbing people to talk and walk arm in arm, has his co-stars put his coat on him and button it for him, he wears a large-brimmed pimp hat in some scenes, is shown in one scene doing an early mannequin challenge while wearing a chef's hat, he pats nurses on the butt ("Oh, doctor!" they giggle), and he improvs nonsense, like meeting with a patient named Phyllis (Kathy Bendett) and bellowing "Phyllis! Philos! Philanthropy! Philosophy! Philadelphia! I'm going to talk to you and you are going to shut up and listen!" BEYOND REASON is a tedious exercise in waiting for a payoff that never comes. When he's having a breakdown late in the film, sporting a bowtie and looking around wondering what's happened to him, he resembles a befuddled Irving R. Levine and the film starts to look like a textbook case of a director who's bitten off more than he can chew. Despite Savalas' cultural omnipresence in 1977-78, MATI, as it was then called, found no interest from any studios or indie distributors (even with a ludicrously misleading two-page ad in Variety desperately trying to sell it as an EXORCIST/OMEN ripoff). It sat on the shelf for five years, and in 1982, Savalas retitled it BEYOND REASON and tried to shop it around again but found that nobody loved it, baby. Media Home Entertainment quietly released BEYOND REASON straight to video in 1985, and it aired on THE CBS LATE MOVIE on June 24, 1986, presumably allowing night-owl viewers at least a one-night respite from their chronic insomnia. KOJAK was cancelled in 1978 and Savalas remained busy in a few movies and in his Player's Club TV spots (he was also commissioned to kick off the 1982 rollout of Diet Coke in a commercial with Bob Hope and Linda Evans), but spent the bulk of his remaining years on TV--including several KOJAK TV-movies--before his death in 1994. He never directed another film.

Incredibly misleading two-page ad in Variety desperately
trying to pass BEYOND REASON off as a supernatural horror film

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) and FRIEND REQUEST (2017)

(US - 2017)

A sleeper hit from the Blumhouse assembly line, HAPPY DEATH DAY is essentially a slasher spin on GROUNDHOG DAY with elements of MEAN GIRLS and, to a certain extent, Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC. Bitchy, self-absorbed sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up hungover in the dorm of nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) after a night of partying, only to go about her day and be killed by a masked maniac on the way to the party her sorority sisters are throwing for her. She relives the time loop day after day and initially can't even, but she eventually uses the repetition and the learned responses to team with Carter--who never remembers the events of the last time loop--to figure out the identity and motive of her killer. There's no shortage of suspects since Tree is a truly horrible person--she's completely dismissive of her nice roommate Lori (Ruby Modine, Matthew's daughter), slept with sorority sister Danielle's (Rachel Matthews) douchebag boyfriend (Blaine Kern III), and is having a casual fling with a married professor (Charles Aitken). She's also been distant toward her concerned dad (Jason Bayle) since her mom's death on her birthday three years earlier. Directed by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY vet Christopher Landon, HAPPY DEATH DAY was stuck in development hell for a decade, originally given the green light back in 2007 with Megan Fox in the lead. Uncanny X-Men comic book scribe Scott Lobdell is the credited screenwriter, though Landon did an almost complete overhaul of the original script. It's got some clever ideas and a few scattered bits of sharp humor, and though some of its twists are a little hokey, it's entertaining and better than it has any business being. A lot of this is due to a terrific performance by Rothe, who's very believable handling Tree's gradual transformation from a cruel, cold-hearted bitch to a sympathetic heroine forced to relive various methods of being murdered at the end of every day and using it to make herself a better person. Budgeted at just $4 million, HAPPY DEATH DAY opened big but took a tumble its second week, still far surpassing its cost and probably on its way to being another Blumhouse franchise. It's no classic by any means, but there's some effective chills throughout, particularly the unnerving mask worn by the very driven killer, and the versatile, appealing Rothe (who had a supporting role as one of Emma Stone's friends in LA LA LAND) definitely has some star potential. (PG-13, 96 mins)

(Germany/South Africa - 2017)

2015's real-time social media/Skypesploitation horror film UNFRIENDED was no masterpiece, but it was surprisingly compelling and managed to stick to its gimmicky conceit without blowing it. The similarly social media-based FRIEND REQUEST, on the other hand, is a tired and uninspired mess that's more or less a Facebook version of THE RING. Shot in 2014 under the title UNFRIEND, the German/South African co-production FRIEND REQUEST was released by Warner Bros in Europe in 2016, but they wisely declined to distribute it in the US. They instead pawned it off on the lowly Freestyle Releasing, who had a trailer in theaters a couple of years ago and then...nothing. Freestyle ended up being acquired by comedian and former talk show host Byron Allen's upstart Entertainment Studios, who enjoyed an unexpected sleeper summer hit after picking up the Weinstein castoff 47 METERS DOWN. Blind luck isn't a reliable sales model, and lightning failed to strike twice. Audiences flatly rejected FRIEND REQUEST, which Allen hubristically rolled out on almost 2600 screens even though it had been readily available on torrent sites for over a year. It promptly crashed and burned with what's presently the ninth-worst wide release opening ever. Shot in South Africa but set in an anonymous American college town, FRIEND REQUEST has social media-addicted student Laura (FEAR THE WALKING DEAD's Alycia Debnam-Carey) getting a friend request from Marina (Lisel Ahlers), a quiet, goth outcast who sits in the back corner of her psych class. Marina is shy and has no friends, and Laura doesn't see the harm in being friendly acquaintances with her. Of course, Marina immediately bombards Laura with posts, messages, and texts, and Marina loses it when she isn't invited with Laura's other friends to a birthday dinner being thrown by her boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley from the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movies). A physical confrontation in the dining hall ultimately leads to Marina committing suicide by simultaneously hanging herself and setting herself on fire and posting the video on Facebook. The university removes the suicide video but it keeps reposting on Laura's timeline and any attempts to delete it only get a prompt reading "Unknown Error," which may have been a better title for the script.

Needless to say, Marina's vengeful ghost is haunting Laura via Facebook, also posting the video on the timelines of all of her friends and making it impossible to delete it or their accounts. Marina's ghost starts spontaneously friending all of Laura's friends, which leads to their grisly deaths--by throat slashing, CGI wasp attack, and random Blumhouse ripoff jump scares. Even as people start turning up dead, Tyler's biggest concern is how much time Laura's spending with her platonic friend and computer whiz/code expert Kobe (Connor Paolo) as they try to figure out how Marina is haunting their social media feeds. Directed and co-written by Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul but the son of THE NASTY GIRL director Michael Verhoeven and 1960s actress Senta Berger), FRIEND REQUEST is a boring and brazenly idiotic snoozer filled with vacuous characters and almost every post-RINGU/JU-ON cliche imaginable (consider it a small victory that Marina doesn't manifest herself doing the herky-jerky J-Horror shuffle). The door is inevitably left open for a sequel, but you'd be wise to ignore, delete, and block anything related to FRIEND REQUEST. (R, 92 mins)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Retro Review: BLACK COBRA (1976)

(Italy - 1976/US release 1980)

Written and directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Cast: Jack Palance, Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Michele Starke, Sigrid Zanger, G. Mariotti. (R, 97 mins)

Though it stars Laura Gemser and is directed by "Joe D'Amato," the best-known pseudonym of Italian cinematographer-turned-journeyman genre legend Aristide Massaccesi (BURIED ALIVE, THE GRIM REAPER), BLACK COBRA isn't one of the duo's many "Black Emanuelle" movies, but it might as well be. Shot under the title EVA NERA, BLACK COBRA was filmed in Rome and Hong Kong on the same trip to the Far East that yielded the same year's earlier EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK, the first teaming of Gemser and D'Amato. Born in Indonesia in 1950, Gemser made an impression as a masseuse in 1975's EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN, the second in the official Sylvia Kristel series. As a result, Gemser was rewarded with the starring role in the same year's knockoff BLACK EMANUELLE (note the elimination of one of the "m"'s), directed by Bitto Albertini. Albertini replaced Gemser with the one-and-done Shulamith Lasri (aka "Sharon Lesley") for 1976's BLACK EMANUELLE 2, prompting Gemser to team with D'Amato for several EMANUELLE movies that are different from the initial BLACK EMANUELLEs but are generally lumped in with them anyway thanks to the her presence. In addition to the actual EMANUELLE movies, Gemser made several other quickie softcore porn outings that were often rechristened as unofficial EMANUELLE or EMMANUELLE movies by their distributors (like 1976's dreadful EMMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND, probably the low point of five-time Oscar-nominee Arthur Kennedy's career). BLACK COBRA has gone under a variety of titles over the decades, but was just released on Blu-ray by Code Red as EMMANUELLE AND THE DEADLY BLACK COBRA. Other than Gemser's character being named "Eva," the EMMANUELLE retitling is fitting, given its focus on all of D'Amato's favorite things: Gemser's body, unkempt mid '70s bushes, and extensive location shooting in exotic ports of call.

"I'm in a Laura Gemser softcore porn. Believe it....or not!"
There was always a "travelogue" element to D'Amato's EMANUELLE movies, but never more than in BLACK COBRA. About 1/3 of the movie seems to be dedicated to Gemser and various co-stars sightseeing around Hong Kong, driving, walking into restaurants, watching street vendors skin, chop, and fry a live snake in a wok and then eating it, all in real time, or a long scene of Gemser feeding live rats to snakes as lounge music with the wordless vocals of Edda dell'Orso or someone who sounds just like her goes on and on. The EMANUELLE movies remain entertaining time capsules of their era (except for Pedro the Horse in the notorious EMANUELLE IN AMERICA), but Gemser and D'Amato are having a really off day here. Perhaps it's due to it being very early in their partnership and they hadn't yet found their groove and perfected their formula (this could really use an English-as-second-language tune as catchy as EMANUELLE IN AMERICA's "Celebrate Myself" or EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE's "Run Cheetah Run"), but BLACK COBRA is loaded with sex, nudity, and sleaze and still manages to be boring, and that's even with the unlikely participation of Jack Palance, somehow cajoled into taking top billing in a Joe D'Amato softcore porno (he was most likely brought on by uncredited ghost producer Harry Alan Towers). The busy Palance was doing a lot of work in Italy over 1975-76 (Nello Rossatti's THE SENSUOUS NURSE, Bruno Corbucci's THE COP IN BLUE JEANS, Fernando Di Leo's RULERS OF THE CITY, Alfonso Brescia's BLOOD AND BULLETS), and also had his starring gig on CBS' one-season, Carroll O'Connor-produced cop show BRONK going on at the same time. Palance is in a lot of BLACK COBRA, but there's a few long stretches where he's not, and his appearances are spaced out enough--he's in none of the Hong Kong exteriors, only the interiors which were shot at Elios Studios back in Rome--that it's likely D'Amato managed to get all of his scenes in the can in matter of a few days, and maybe even got away with not telling the legendary Hollywood actor what was going on in the rest of the movie.

Eva (Gemser), a nightclub dancer whose act involves snakes writhing around her naked body, makes the acquaintance of smarmy businessman Jules Carmichael (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's future husband and frequent co-star) on a flight from Holland to Hong Kong. Later that evening, Jules convinces his older brother Judas (Palance) to check out Eva's act. Judas, a wealthy eccentric obsessed with his large collection of venomous snakes, is immediately taken with Eva. He brings her home to show her his collection, but she's afraid of both the snakes and Judas, especially after he blows it up by creepily hissing "I like the scent of you" in a way that only Palance can. Eva eventually warms up to Judas, who becomes her platonic sugar daddy while duplicitous Jules has his own designs on her. Eva's not interested in either of the Carmichael boys, and though she gives her body to a sleazy Hong Kong nightclub owner, her serious carnal attentions go to Gerri (Michele Starck) and Candy (Sigrid Zanger), much to Jules' jealous disapproval.

There isn't much of a plot to BLACK COBRA, at least not in the sense that there's developed story or character arcs. Nobody's watching Gemser/D'Amato movies for the story, but the EMANUELLEs at least had the "crusading photojournalist" angle and some semblance of drama. Not much happens in BLACK COBRA in the periods between the Gemser/Starck nude rubdowns, soapy showers, and sex scenes. Tinti's Jules is the clear villain, but there's not really any urgency or forward momentum but the one legitimate surprise comes in the handling of Palance's Judas. D'Amato does flip the script to a certain extent by gradually revealing that Judas is a harmless guy and the film's most intriguing character, one who seems to have been brought in from another movie. Perhaps it was a concession made to dignify Palance's presence in this kind of project, but Judas turns out to be an introverted, sensitive homebody, a loner who has never felt comfortable around people and prefers the company of his snakes, tending to them and observing them. Early on, you expect Judas' behavior to lead to a horror movie, and it belatedly turns horrific to a degree in its final ten minutes, but it's through no fault of  Judas. Palance being in BLACK COBRA is surprising enough, but to see him actually giving a shit is almost flabbergasting (there are a few fleeting instances where Palance's voice changes and he's dubbed for a line or two by Michael Forest, and the effect is strange, to say the least, especially since Forest's Palance impression sounds more like Clint Eastwood), especially to anyone who saw him slumming and visibly shitfaced in Jess Franco's 1969 film JUSTINE. Some of the scenes in his residence play like D'Amato talked him into believing he was in some kind of Visconti knockoff. Palance remains clothed and isn't directly involved in any of the more salacious material (he observes some fondling between Gemser and another woman in a restaurant, but it's cut between the women and Palance reaction shots, making it almost certain he wasn't actually watching them and wasn't there at the same time), he isn't there for any of Jules' snake-abetted murders, and he certainly isn't present for the scene where Jules gets his comeuppance when Eva has a cobra slither up his ass.

Video Gems' VHS cover art
Against-type casting for Jack Palance shouldn't be the most interesting thing about a skin-filled Gemser/D'Amato joint, and it would take four years and several Gemser EMANUELLE films for BLACK COBRA to find a US distributor. The short-lived Aurora Film Corporation gave it a spotty release on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit in 1980 (with the immortal tag line "How much snake can one woman take..."), which seems to be the only year the company existed, possibly due to acquiring product like BLACK COBRA. Aurora's other releases included the Stuart Whitman/Robert Vaughn B actioner CUBA CROSSING, one of the few feature films directed by Chuck Workman, best known for his filmed pieces for a couple decades' worth of Oscar telecasts, and the kiddie kung-fu comedy THE LITTLE DRAGONS, which was in heavy rotation on Showtime in the early '80s and an early credit for future L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and 8 MILE director Curtis Hanson. BLACK COBRA was released on VHS and has been on a number of dubious budget labels in crummy presentations, but Code Red's Blu-ray, distributed by Kino Lorber, looks great. It's too bad it's accompanied by an almost completely useless commentary by film historian Mirek Lipinski.

Code Red's 2018 Blu-ray cover art
Lipinski is a figure of some repute in cult movie circles (well, at least he was before this commentary), running the Latarnia Forums and doing a lot to document and preserve the legacy of beloved Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy. But commentaries--this is his first one--don't seem to be his thing (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was Facebook friends with Lipinski but was unfriended by him at some point several years ago). Lipinski gets sidetracked very early on, going into such ludicrous detail about Chinese restaurants and its many accoutrements (did we need an extensive lesson on the uses of the Lazy Susan serving dish?), and awkward analysis of why lesbian sex scenes are "a turn-on to the male of the species," that for a while, it almost seems like it's some kind of Andy Kaufman-style stunt. Lipinski does helpfully mention that Palance's scenes were shot in Rome and that he never went to Hong Kong, but then keeps repeating the point ad nauseum. His other observations are obvious and already known to any genre fan (like Massaccesi using the name 'Joe D'Amato' to seem more American), and ultimately, there's really no reason to listen this meandering, almost stream-of-consciousness track that makes Bill Olsen's usual antics of mispronouncing actors' names and complaining about the movie he's watching seem academic and Criterion-esque by comparison. The situation gets more dire as it goes on, starting with Lipinski proclaiming his disdain for women shaving their pubic hair, the likelihood of getting a "happy ending" at a Hong Kong massage parlor, and still more on Chinese restaurants. But as the movie winds down, he completely shits the bed, turning into the world's creepiest tour guide, babbling incessantly about the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong and the intricacies and loopholes of its prostitution laws and other details that have jack shit to do with the movie and maybe tell us a little TMI about Lipinski. In fairness, this probably wasn't the best film to tackle for a first time commentator. There's really no one from the production who could've taken part: Gemser is long-retired and has given maybe three interviews in the last 20 years; Starck's last IMDb credit is an appearance in the 1984 Tom Hanks hit BACHELOR PARTY; and D'Amato, Palance, Tinti, and editor Bruno Mattei are all dead. Judging from what's here, Lipinski just didn't have much to say about the movie, in which case, it was probably better to say nothing at all. Bottom line: it's a contender for the worst commentary I've ever heard, and the only one I can recall where I've felt the need to shower afterward.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: ACTS OF VIOLENCE (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Brett Donowho. Written by Nicolas Aaron Mezzanatto. Cast: Cole Hauser, Bruce Willis, Shawn Ashmore, Ashton Holmes, Mike Epps, Sophia Bush, Melissa Bolona, Patrick St. Esprit, Sean Brosnan, Tiffany Brouwer, Jenna B. Kelly, Rotimi Akinosho, Matt Metzler, Christopher Rob Bowen. (R, 87 mins)

The latest installment in Lionsgate's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series finds the actor celebrating the 30th anniversary of DIE HARD by spending 90% of his cumulative ten minutes of screen time seated at a desk thumbing through paperwork. As burned-out Cleveland detective Avery, Willis opens the film big, participating in a well-shot drug raid that has enough arresting camera work to show that the filmmakers watched that one episode from the first season of HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE. Avery is trying to bust a drug and human trafficking raid run by crime lord and all-around shitbag Max Livingston (the unlikely Mike Epps), who's also alternately referred to as "Max Livington" in an apparent homage to Stallone's Lincoln Hawk(s) in OVER THE TOP. But don't think Willis is putting forth any effort, because the action soon switches gears and becomes THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN remade as a blue collar TAKEN ripoff. The MacGregors took no guff as kids (they're shown decking some bullies in a flashback) and they still don't as adults. So when baby brother Roman's (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE's Ashton Holmes) fiancee and childhood sweetheart Mia (Melissa Bolona) is abducted by Living(s)ton's goons (one of them played by Sean Brosnan, son of Pierce) and held captive among destitute women forced into drug addition and prostitution (and his inventory of "product" is depleted thanks to a bad batch of fentanyl making the rounds) and the cops' hands are inevitably tied, Roman's military vet brothers--eldest Deklan (Cole Hauser), a PTSD anger management case who can't adjust to civilian life, and elder Brandon (Shawn Ashmore), also a combat vet--give him a crash course in military and weapons training. This preps them all to go full urban SEARCHERS to mount a rescue mission to save Mia and destroy Living(s)ton's operation.

As far as these kinds of by-the-numbers, straight-to-VOD actioners with 29 credited producers go, ACTS OF VIOLENCE is passable. It moves briskly enough and with the closing credits rolling at 80 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome. There's no shortage of cliches, whether it's frustrated Avery telling Deklan to back off and let the cops do their job, or Avery reaching into his top desk drawer for a flask of Jim Beam to pour into his coffee mug, or the very concept of average citizens taking the law into their own hands (which Willis will be doing soon in Eli Roth's upcoming remake of DEATH WISH). You've seen this movie a thousand times before, but director Brett Donowho and screenwriter Nicolas Aaron Mezzanatto earn some points by letting things get a little more unpleasant and grim than expected, as well as demonstrating a willingness to kill off characters you wouldn't expect. Still, don't look for much in the way of cinema verite or social commentary despite Ohio, particularly the Cleveland area with its close proximity to the Ohio Turnpike, being a key transportation hub in human trafficking as well as a major contributor to the state's distressingly high numbers of overdose deaths related to the opioid epidemic.

While it's not enough to make it anything above average, ACTS OF VIOLENCE also gets a surprising boost from a convincing performance by Hauser. Looking and sounding more and more like his dad--B-movie legend Wings Hauser--as he gets older, Hauser is actually trying here and there's no reason he shouldn't have a busy career in these kinds of movies. He'll always have DAZED AND CONFUSED, but he also paid his dues with supporting roles in big-budget hits like PITCH BLACK and 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, but Hollywood gave up on trying to make him a leading man after nobody went to see PAPARAZZI and THE CAVE a decade and a half ago. Hauser could be a case of getting better with age, because he gives ACTS OF VIOLENCE a little more stoical grit than you'd expect. He's certainly more enthused about being here than his HART'S WAR and TEARS OF THE SUN co-star Willis, who mumbles his way through his sporadic appearances like he just accidentally took some Advil PM for a daytime headache. A visibly inconvenienced Willis is doubled in a few shots of his character from behind and probably didn't work on this for more than two days, but even he fares better than an under-utilized Sophia Bush, wasted in a frivolous supporting role as Avery's concerned partner. Bush's lines are limited mainly to some variation on "Avery, are you OK?" and you have to wonder why she left a popular hit cop show like CHICAGO P.D. to play essentially the same role in a run-of-the-mill Bruce Willis VOD cop movie. This isn't exactly an upward move if she left TV for the movies, unless she's taking misguided career advice from Bruce Willis.

Friday, January 12, 2018

In Theaters: THE COMMUTER (2018)

(US/France - 2018)

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh, Ella-Rae Smith, Roland Moller,  Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Clara Lago, Colin McFarlane, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Adam Nagaitis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Damson Idris. (PG-13, 105 mins)

Not even Liam Neeson expected TAKEN to jumpstart a new career as an action hero in his late 50s way back in 2009. In the ensuing years, he's enjoyed much success with two TAKEN sequels and string of other hits that also led to the Neeson formula giving a bunch of other respectable, award-winning actors their shot at kicking ass and blowing shit up as they push 60, among them Kevin Costner in 3 DAYS TO KILL, Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER, Sean Penn in THE GUNMAN, and even the unlikely Gerard Depardieu in the justifiably little-seen VIKTOR. One could even tangentially connect the EXPENDABLES franchise to the unexpected success of TAKEN, which Fox inexplicably had little faith in, sitting on it for over a year and almost dumping it directly to DVD before taking a gamble that paid off. Workaholic Neeson's action movies became such a staple at multiplexes in the early 2010s that it's hard to believe THE COMMUTER is his first film of this type since 2015's RUN ALL NIGHT. He then took a bit of a break from genre fare, appearing in a supporting role as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the 2016 South Korean WWII epic OPERATION CHROMITE, motion-capturing the title character in J.A. Bayona's A MONSTER CALLS, co-starring as a conflicted priest in Martin Scorsese's arthouse drama SILENCE, and playing Watergate whistleblower "Deep Throat" in 2017's barely-released MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE. Action Neeson is back in THE COMMUTER, and though it's only January, it's already a safe bet that this will be one of the year's most stupidly entertaining thrillers.

THE COMMUTER starts out implausible and grows so exponentially ridiculous as it goes on that even the most jaded, cynical cineaste will likely have a goofy grin on their face by the end of it. Neeson is Michael MacCauley, a Dublin-born ex-NYC cop turned life insurance salesman who goes into the midtown Manhattan office one day and leaves with a severance package. After losing everything in the economic downturn of 2008 and with two mortgages and a son about to head off to college, MacCauley is living paycheck to paycheck, and isn't sure how to tell his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) that he's now unemployed at 60. After meeting his old partner and non-Robocop Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for a few drinks to gather up the courage to tell Karen the news, MacCauley heads to the train for the commute home to Long Island, where he typically engages in small-talk with all the regular riders, like grizzled, blue collar Walt (Jonathan Banks). But this ride home is different. MacCauley is approached by mystery woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who proposes a hypothetical scenario: there's $25,000 hidden in a restroom on the train and additional $75,000 after if MacCauley locates someone on the train named "Prynne" who's getting off at Cold Spring, the seventh stop on the commute. The hypothetical would also involve planting a GPS tracker in "Prynne"'s bag and just walking away with no further concern for what he did or why he had to do it. Joanna gets off the train at the next stop but continues to taunt MacCauley by phone to prove that she always has eyes and ears on him and soon enough, he's caught in a Hitchcockian nightmare and a race against time to find "Prynne"--a murder witness who needs to be eliminated--that intensifies after he receives a threat that Karen and their son will be killed if he refuses to comply.

That's the set-up, but the screenwriters and director Jaume Collet-Serra--his fourth collaboration with Neeson following UNKNOWN, NON-STOP, and RUN ALL NIGHT--let the absurdities pile up at a breakneck pace. There's the old mystery trope of getting all the passengers in one car to figure out someone's secret identity. There's a set-up to frame MacCauley and make it look like he's holding the passengers hostage. There's a cartoonish CGI derailment (it's really bad) as the film briefly turns into an UNSTOPPABLE-style disaster movie. Then there's some police corruption and a cover-up, some literary references, and some jabs at Wall Street for the economy tanking a decade ago (MacCauley, after hearing an obnoxious d-bag mention he once worked for Goldman Sachs: "On behalf of the American middle class, fuck you!"). There's even a SPARTACUS homage. Collet-Serra throws in some neat directorial touches, like an impressive opening credits sequence that shows the daily grind of MacCauley's morning routine over the years, and some amusing billboards outside the train and ads inside that almost seem to be taunting him ("You could be home right now!"). He also pulls off some showy, CGI-abetted camera moves with POV shots through ticket stub hole punches, and 65-year-old Neeson jumping from car to car and even being dragged under the train, rolling over the tracks and then sprinting to jump back on the train. And you know what? As long as you don't ask questions--such as "If Joanna can see what's happening on the train at all times, then how can she have no way of figuring out who 'Prynne' is?" and "Why is the CGI so terrible?" and "Why doesn't this prominently-billed name actor appear to have much to do with the plot?"--THE COMMUTER is a master class in check-your-brain-at-the-door, popcorn entertainment. Admittedly, having someone like Neeson as the focus helps sell a lot of the more silly elements. His very particular set of skills include conveying steely, teeth-gritting gravitas as effectively as any movie star since the heyday of Kirk Douglas, and he manages to keep the drama somewhat grounded even as the events escalate into all-out insanity by the end. I didn't realize until seeing him hanging off a speeding CGI train or barking into a phone just how much I've missed this Neeson since RUN ALL NIGHT. Is it formulaic and a bit recycled? Hell yes it is, but Neeson and Collet-Serra are a proven team that works. THE COMMUTER is dumb, it isn't high art, but it's an absolute blast.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: BULLET HEAD (2017) and THE PIRATES OF SOMALIA (2017)

(US - 2017)

I'm not sure how you can take a set-up more foolproof than the one offered by BULLET HEAD and end up botching it almost instantly, but writer/director Paul Solet manages to do just that. Solet, who got some acclaim in indie horror circles a while back with 2009's GRACE, jumps right into the story with BULLET HEAD, which has three criminals--level-headed Stacy (Adrien Brody), cynical old-timer Walker (John Malkovich), and irresponsible junkie Gage (Rory Culkin)--making off with a safe from a bungled department store robbery that left several customers and their wheelman dead after trigger-happy Gage decided to raid the pharmacy and open fire. They hole up in an abandoned factory to wait for their contact to arrive to open the safe but that plan goes to shit when they encounter an unexpected obstacle: a battered, bloodied, furiously vicious and very intelligent pit bull who charges at them and has them running from room to room trying to get away and stay alive. But as soon as that simple, to-the-point pitch is established, Solet can't wait to get away from it, giving each of these low-rent reservoir dogs verbose backstories that eat up entirely too much screen time and kill any suspense and momentum the film had going. Brody gets a ludicrously long monologue about a past job involving "truffles" that goes absolutely nowhere, and likewise Malkovich and Culkin get their own long-winded filibusters as the film starts to resemble a David Mamet workshop. Even the dog gets a backstory, as we learn his name is "De Niro," and he's the champion of an underground dogfighting ring (other dogs are named "Eastwood" and "McQueen") based in that very abandoned warehouse and run by powerful crime boss Blue (Antonio Banderas), who inevitably shows up and isn't happy to find intruders. Other than a couple of blurred bits from the dog's POV early on, Banderas doesn't really enter the story until the last 15 minutes, when he immediately shoots someone and follows it with--what else?--a ten-minute speech.

In addition to the movie tough guy shout-outs with the names of the dogs, there's also a lot of Tarantino-esque riffing where Brody and Malkovich debate the merits of being a dog person vs. a cat person, and there's some occasionally witty dialogue after Culkin's idiotic Gage goes off to shoot up so he can get back to normal, and after he's gone for a while, Malkovich's Walker quips "Maybe we should go find him before he takes a selfie on the roof and posts it to Instagram." There's a couple of really good scenes--the discovery of a room filled with rotting canine corpses, and one outstanding suspense set piece just after the one hour mark that looks like Solet came up with that first and then struggled to build a movie around it--but this thing is all over the place. It's pieces of a '90s throwback Tarantino ripoff, a talky Mamet homage, a botched "one last job" heist thriller, a riff on AMORES PERROS, and a killer dog horror movie all cobbled together. It's obvious that the long, actorly monologues seemed appealing to the lead actors (though for some reason, Malkovich decided mumbling would be a good character trait), and to its credit, BULLET HEAD is a lot more ambitious and well-shot than most Bulgaria-lensed productions by Cannon cover band Millennium. But the end result is a rambling, aimless mishmash that sells itself as a nailbiting suspense thriller and can't wait to run as far away from its own premise as quickly as possible. (R, 94 mins)

(US/UK - 2017)

Based on the 2011 book The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World by Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur, the South Africa-shot THE PIRATES OF SOMALIA is, for the most part, a tone-deaf misfire. It doesn't help that Evan Peters' bland and unappealing performance as Bahadur doesn't really do much to make you care about the central character, but we learn so little about Bahadur before he takes off on his adventure that it just never seems plausible. It's 2008, Bahadur is a year out of college with a degree in business and economics and a newfound desire to be a journalist. Stuck in a dead-end job and living in his parents' basement, he impulsively decides to travel to Somalia to track down and interview pirates and hope that some magazine or book publisher back home will buy the story. What follows is part serious drama and part FEAR AND LOATHING IN SOMALIA, as Bahadur meets up with affable and well-connected interpreter Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, one of the film's few positives) and learns that in order to get interviews with the right people, he needs to bring along the drug khat as payment. This leads to several sequences of Bahadur and his newfound Somali pals chewing khat and writer/director Bryan Buckley (THE BRONZE) segueing into trippy, hallucinatory animated sequences that look like CHEECH AND CHONG'S WALTZ WITH BASHIR. Bahadur spends six months in Somalia, and while he never actually witnesses any piracy firsthand, the film does work in some references to the situation depicted in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (including an animated recap), which of course co-starred an Oscar-nominated Abdi, almost serving as some kind of bizarro auto-critique on the pitfalls of typecasting. A subplot involving Bahadur growing smitten with the wife (Sabrina Hassan Abdulle) of pirate leader Garaad Mohamed (Mohamed Osmail Ibrahim) only adds to the tedium. The film goes on forever, which allows an embedded Bahadur to grow a shaggy, unkempt beard, which only succeeds in making Peters look like the Geico caveman. A disheveled-looking Al Pacino shows up for a day's work as a grizzled, burned-out, and completely fictional journalism legend who inspires Bahadur to go to Somalia, and Melanie Griffith has even less screen time as Bahadur's concerned mom. Bahadur's story is an interesting one, and he's become a respected journalist in the years since, but you'd never know it by watching THE PIRATES OF SOMALIA. (R, 118 mins)


(US/UK - 2017)

A middling biopic that goes into the Watergate saga from the POV of the whistleblower, the cumbersomely-titled MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE focuses on the veteran FBI company man who, 30-plus years later, admitted that he was the informant known as "Deep Throat," who regularly fed information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. These provided some of the most memorable scenes in the 1976 classic ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, with Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat, but MARK FELT goes into what drove him to secretly talk to the press. Felt (1913-2008) is played by an excellent Liam Neeson, and as the film opens in 1972, J. Edgar Hoover has just died and Felt is generally considered by D.C. insiders as a lock to take over as director. The job goes to former deputy Attorney General L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas as Russell Crowe), a Nixon loyalist who also brings back disgraced agent Bill Sullivan (a twitchy and overly mannered Tom Sizemore), a longtime rival of Felt's. After the Watergate break-in, Felt leads the FBI investigation but is quickly shut down by Gray, who insists on reporting all of their findings to White House counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall) over Felt's objections that the FBI doesn't work for the President. A frustrated Felt begins feeding info of a cover-up to Time reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and eventually Bob Woodward (Julian Morris) at the Post as Gray and Dean desperately try to find the source of the leaks and protect the Oval Office.

Produced by Ridley Scott, MARK FELT was released in September 2017, just after President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey over concerns of "loyalty" and stopping an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. There's some unintended contemporary parallels with the FBI side of the story in MARK FELT and the Oval Office's misunderstanding of the limits of its power and who answers to it, and for a while, as Felt keeps digging for info and keeps being stonewalled by his own boss--this is as much about Felt butting heads with Gray as it is about Watergate--it's a compelling flip side to events seen in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. But as the film goes on, writer/director Peter Landesman (who also wrote the underrated and little-seen KILL THE MESSENGER) loses focus. Felt's decision to become a whistleblower seems initially rooted in his bitterness at being passed over as director after 30 years of doing and saying all the right things, but as he uncovers more evidence that leads directly to Nixon's inner circle, he refuses to play along and be the good soldier that Gray expects. This sort of thing plays to Neeson's strengths, and he turns in one of his best serious performances of the non-TAKEN variety in a long time. The large cast of supporting actors (there's also Josh Lucas, Brian d'Arcy James, Eddie Marsan, Tony Goldwyn, Noah Wyle, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Walsh, and Wendi McLendon-Covey) exists primarily to dump reams of exposition, exclaim cliches ("What you're doing...will bring down the whole house of cards!"), and stare suspiciously at one another as paranoia mounts. To the film's credit, it doesn't ignore Felt's post-Watergate conviction for illegal wiretapping of the Weather Underground and other activist groups and his subsequent pardon by Ronald Reagan in 1981, but it's included almost as an afterthought and it doesn't go deep enough into his reasoning for the overzealous surveillance of those groups: his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) ran away and joined a commune and he was trying to find her while at the same time hoping to shield her from any prosecution for things she might've done as part of these activist groups. The entire subplot about Felt's home life is botched, leaving Diane Lane with almost nothing to do but complain and guzzle wine as Felt's neglected, long-suffering wife Audrey (who would commit suicide in 1984). Both Neeson and Landesman have expressed regret that most of Lane's performance ended up being cut from the film for time reasons, but really, the whole second half of MARK FELT collapses into total incoherence and starts demonstrating all of the tell-tale signs of a movie that's been hacked to pieces in post-production (Felt is shown meeting with Woodward just one time). At 103 minutes, MARK FELT is curiously short for this kind of sweeping historical saga, almost as if Landesman was told to ditch everything that didn't involve Watergate. Sony had no idea what to do with this, even with a big name like Neeson headlining: this only made it to 332 screens at its widest release, grossing just $768,000. (PG-13, 103 mins)

(US - 2017)

A refreshingly old-fashioned B-movie of the sort that would've played drive-ins back in 1980, the true crime saga LAST RAMPAGE: THE ESCAPE OF GARY TISON deals with a prison break and subsequent statewide manhunt that took place in Arizona in July and August of 1978. The film is a gritty labor of love for veteran character actor Robert Patrick, who produced and stars as Tison, a convicted murderer and tyrannical father who lords over his three devoted sons Donnie (Alex MacNicoll), Ricky (Skyy Moore), and Ray (Casey Thomas Brown). It's his sons who help pull off the escape during a visit, with Tison's psycho prison buddy Randy Greenawalt (Chris Browning) tagging along. Weary Sheriff Cooper (Bruce Davison) leads the manhunt and, of course, it's personal since Tison killed one of his close friends, while an ambitious reporter (Molly C. Quinn) tries to get a story out of Tison's devoutly dutiful wife Dorothy (Heather Graham). Tison is a brutal, ruthless sociopath with no capacity for mercy. He's not above shotgunning a newlywed couple or a toddler if it means saving his ass, and he doesn't hesitate to point a gun at Donnie's head when the eldest son starts thinking for himself, questioning his actions and refusing to call him "sir."

LAST RAMPAGE was directed by career journeyman Dwight Little, who made his name in the horror genre back in the day with 1988's HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS and 1989's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with Robert Englund. Since then, he's gone wherever his services have been required, from the 1991 Steven Seagal vehicle MARKED FOR DEATH, the 1992 Brandon Lee actioner RAPID FIRE, 1995's FREE WILLY 2, and 1997's MURDER AT 1600. Little's spent most of the last 20 years as a busy TV director, and LAST RAMPAGE is his first feature film since the $30 million video game adaptation TEKKEN went straight to DVD in 2011. Little doesn't bring any real sense of style to LAST RAMPAGE, but he keeps it fast-moving and focused, like a professional B-movie hired gun knows how to do. Patrick is terrifying and oozes pure evil as the monstrous Tison, and Davison has some nice moments as the folksy, matter-of-fact Cooper, even if the character seems to be a composite of Tommy Lee Jones in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and Jeff Bridges in HELL OR HIGH WATER. The film fails to take advantage of the unusual casting of Graham, and the scenes between the subtly manipulative Dorothy and the naive young reporter don't really seem to go anywhere. Dorothy is a woman who's convinced herself of many things, and Graham seems eager to disappear into a dowdy, unglamorous role with some truly hideous 1978 eyeglass frames, but the script, written by Alvaro Rodriguez (Robert Rodriguez's cousin) doesn't really give her much to do. The supporting cast also includes Megan Gallagher as Cooper's wife, Jason James Richter (the kid from FREE WILLY) as a deputy, and the late John Heard in one of his last roles (he died two months before the film's VOD release) as the useless warden. The Tison story was told once before, albeit in a more sanitized fashion, in the 1983 ABC TV-movie A KILLER IN THE FAMILY, which starred Robert Mitchum as Tison, with his three sons played by Lance Kerwin (SALEM'S LOT), and a young and unknown Eric Stoltz and James Spader. (R, 93 mins)