Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In Theaters: HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, John-Paul Howard, Margaret Bowman, Taylor Sheridan. (R, 102 mins)

A strong, character-driven thriller that emerged as a summer sleeper after being rolled out the old-fashioned way--limited release over a few weeks and expanding nationally with strong word-of-mouth--HELL OR HIGH WATER is a timely drama about family, duty, poverty, and getting revenge on the system. It does get a little ham-fisted on occasion, with characters required to give a florid speech every now and again as they look at a bank and vent their anger at everything it represents, but director David Mackenzie (YOUNG ADAM, MISTER FOE) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) excel at creating very real people that the audience comes to know thoroughly over the course of the film. Unemployed gas driller Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his bank-robbing, ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are hitting the small-town branches of the regional Texas Midlands Bank, usually before open as an employee arrives and never taking packs of money, only the loose bills in the tills. They get away, bury the car, and move on to the next town. Meanwhile, wily old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is looking at forced retirement but wants to nail the robbers first ("I may have one hunt left in me"), following their criminal path with his Mexican/Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As they make their way across the state toward Oklahoma, the Howard brothers are almost undone by Tanner's impulsive behavior that includes a reckless, spur-of-the-moment robbery while Toby is picking up the check at a diner across the street. Hamilton is stymied in his pursuit by behind-the-times Texas Midlands, with two of the targeted branches not having an electronic surveillance system, instead relying on a VHS recorder that's not even working. The robberies are masterminded by Toby, with Tanner tagging along because he's experienced. Their mother recently passed away and Texas Midlands was threatening foreclosure even as she quickly withered away from terminal cancer. Toby's ultimate plan for the stolen cash is an inventive one, and he does it with the best intentions--to provide his two sons with his bitter ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) the kind of life he and Tanner never had. He's breaking the law to break the cycle of poverty that, as is the case with so many others in these desolate nether regions of rural America, has been passed on from generation to generation.

HELL OR HIGH WATER recognizes the noble reasoning behind Toby's actions but never makes him or Tanner heroes, even though the locals questioned by Hamilton and Parker are all too happy to see Texas Midlands get screwed. The only clear villains of the piece are those in the financial sector, who are treated with scorn and condescension by everyone, even Hamilton, who arrives at one crime scene, sees a well-dressed manager and gruffly intones "Well, let's talk to this guy here, he looks like someone who can foreclose on a home." Pine and Foster are excellent as the sibling bank robbers, and even a trigger-happy loose cannon like Tanner is humanized to some degree and not played as a stock psycho by Foster.  But HELL OR HIGH WATER's biggest joys are provided by the national treasure that is Jeff Bridges. It's another Oscar-caliber performance, on the same level of burned-out melancholy as Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN but given a more gregarious manner in his rapport with Parker. Indeed, the testy ballbusting between Hamilton and Parker is hands-down the bromance of the year, so much so that you could easily watch an entire movie of Bridges and Birmingham in character, just sitting around dogging on each other. Whether it's Parker getting on Hamilton about his age ("You gonna do somethin' or just relax and let Alzheimer's run its course?") or Hamilton's constant razzing about Parker's dual ethnicities ("I haven't even gotten to my Mexican insults yet. I'm still on the Indian ones."), these two have an unspoken respect and dedication to one another ("You're gonna miss me pickin' on you," Hamilton tells Parker), an ironclad bond that makes events that transpire utterly heartbreaking.

Like other recent indie films that have addressed foreclosure and those doomed to struggle in a vicious cycle of being screwed and marginalized by the system (SUNLIGHT JR and 99 HOMES come to mind), HELL OR HIGH WATER is filmed in areas that have been hit hard, augmented by a downbeat score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Abandoned houses and boarded-up businesses line the streets. Old-timers are embittered, beaten-down, and done giving a shit (the "What don't ya want?" T-Bone waitress played by Margaret Bowman is a real crowd-pleaser) and young people just cruise around looking for fights (watch Toby handle the two meatheads blasting aggro-metal and waving a gun at Tanner at a gas station). Sheridan was best known as the ill-fated Deputy Hale on SONS OF ANARCHY before he switched careers to screenwriting with SICARIO. In between, he directed VILE, one of the worst horror films ever made, and one that was mentioned a lot on his Facebook page but mysteriously vanished from his IMDb profile and reappeared as the sole credit on another as soon as SICARIO started getting some positive buzz (c'mon, man--if James Cameron can own up to PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, you can admit to VILE). His hapless attempts at scrubbing his past aside, Sheridan has proven himself adept at creating believable, fully-rounded characters but it sometimes comes off as a little too scripted and "messagey." It's not enough to be a huge issue, but some more subtlety would've been a good thing in these fleeting moments. In the end, HELL OR HIGH WATER is one of 2016's best, a film that doesn't let anyone off the hook, one filled with nail-biting tension when it counts most and genuine, devastating emotion when you least expect it.

Friday, August 26, 2016

In Theaters: DON'T BREATHE (2016)

(US/Hungary - 2016)

Directed by Fede Alvarez. Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Emma Bercovici, Franciska Torocsik, Christian Zagia, Katia Bokor, Sergej Onopko. (R, 88 mins)

Director Fede Alvarez made his mark on the horror scene with his surprisingly well-received and better-than-expected 2013 remake of EVIL DEAD. Once again teaming with co-writer Rodo Sayagues and producer/original EVIL DEAD mastermind Sam Raimi, Alvarez is back with the home invasion-thriller-with-a-twist DON'T BREATHE. In an almost apocalyptic Detroit (some exteriors were done in the Motor City, but the bulk of the film was shot in Hungary), Rocky (Jane Levy, outstanding in EVIL DEAD '13) is fed up with her abusive, white trash mom (Katia Bokor) and wants nothing more than to take her little sister (Emma Bercovici) and run off to California. Rocky's been stashing money away by breaking into houses with her dirtbag boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto, from IT FOLLOWS) and their nice-guy friend Alex (Dylan Minnette). Alex's dad manages a home security company, so that gives them easy (a little too easy--why wouldn't his dad have all the keys and alarm codes to his clients' homes at the office instead of at his own home?). Money gets word of an inner-city neighborhood completely abandoned except for one house. In that house is a recluse who's supposedly sitting on six figures he got in a settlement from a rich family whose teenage daughter accidentally ran over his own daughter. Casing the house and observing the owner (Stephen Lang) outside, the trio of nitwits are surprised to see that he's blind, the result of a bomb blast during his military days in Iraq. They manage to get in the house in the dead of night but they're no match for the fighting and weaponry skills of The Blind Man, who can take easily take them on despite his lack of sight. He starts by killing Money and isn't aware of Rocky and Alex until his enhanced sense of smell leads him to their shoes, which they took off and left in the kitchen. Fleeing the Blind Man and his vicious watchdog, Rocky and Alex end up in the basement, where they stumble on an entirely unexpected house of horrors.

The premise of a home invasion where the invaders become the hunted isn't exactly new, as Wes Craven's THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS did it 25 years ago. But Alvarez does a great job in the early going--despite beating you over the head with some bush-league foreshadowing--establishing some serious tension in every whisper, sign, and creaking floorboard potentially giving the trio away. Alvarez and Sayagues also take a big risk in not making the trio particularly likable, even if Rocky's doing what she's doing for herself and her sister, and friend-zoned Alex is doing it because he's carrying a torch for Rocky. Killing Money off first is gratifying to the audience since he's by far the most loathsome of the three and at that point, you're sort-of expected to be on the side of The Blind Man. Other than the business involving Alex's access to the keys and alarm codes, the first half of DON'T BREATHE will have you wound pretty tight and holding your breath in suspenseful anticipation of what happens next. But what happens next is the story moves to the basement, where there's a moderately clever scene shot with a low-lit camera after the Blind Man shuts off the power and Rocky and Alex are forced to wander around in total darkness, as blind as their pursuer but without his homefield advantage.

DON'T BREATHE's utter collapse begins with the reveal of what's in the basement and why it's there. And also, how it's there, because that doesn't seem too plausible, either. There's a really demented element that's brought to the forefront involving this discovery in the basement, and it all seems to be a long, drawn-out buildup to a gross-out gag that seems more in line with something that the Farrelly Brothers would've concocted in the late '90s. From then on, DON'T BREATHE becomes an endless series of plot holes and contrivances, with one major thread left dangling at the end that, upon any scrutiny whatsoever, makes the Detroit police look completely incompetent. Yes, it may seem silly and nit-picky to gripe about implausible story mechanics in some movies (I haven't even mentioned the dog chasing Rocky through the heating ducts), but it smacks of Alvarez and Sayagues recognizing that they've backed themselves into a corner, and instead of even bothering with a ridiculous deus ex machina, they choose to simply not address it at all. And sure, maybe some moviegoers won't even think about it, but it seems so glaring that it seems impossible to not think of it. Lang and Levy do some very good work here, with Levy in particular staking her claim as one of the great Final Girls of today's horror, but other than an extremely impressive sequence involving Rocky barricading herself in Money's car to avoid The Blind Man's dog that's a small masterpiece of blocking and editing, DON'T BREATHE's second half just completely flies off the rails into total stupidity when it had a really good thing going.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: CLOWN (2016); BASKIN (2016); and THE INVITATION (2016)

(US - 2016)

When 2015's COP CAR got some festival buzz going and became a minor hit on the arthouse circuit, it was enough to bump director/co-writer Jon Watts and his writing partner Christopher Ford into megabudget circles with the upcoming reboot SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. But long before COP CAR, Watts and Ford made their debut, the horror film CLOWN. Shot in late 2012 but kept on a shelf by the Weinstein Co. until 2016, CLOWN is a feature-length expansion of a fake trailer Watts and Ford made and posted to YouTube in 2010. The "trailer," about a demonic clown, jokingly proclaimed "From master of horror Eli Roth," which prompted a flattered Roth to meet with the pair and offer to produce an actual CLOWN movie. While Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE may have worked once--before the novelty wore off with MACHETE KILLS--CLOWN is more on the HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN end of fake trailers-turned-real movies. Leadenly-paced and feeling much longer than 99 minutes, CLOWN has dad Kent (Andy Powers) forced by a cancellation to don an old clown costume for his son Jack's (Christian Distefano) birthday party. The suit and makeup soon adhere to and fuse with his body, making it impossible to take off.  After several failed and increasingly gruesome attempts to get out of the costume, a desperate Kent shoots himself in the head only to find he can't die. This drives him to madness and murder, as his wife Meg (Laura Allen) learns from Karlsson (Peter Stormare), the suit's previous owner, that it's an instrument of a demon who subsists on the sacrificing of five children a year. This leads to a repetitive series of sequences with Kent pursuing children and slowly morphing into a full-on clown demon as Meg tries to keep him from killing Jack. There's some intriguing and occasionally ballsy ideas in CLOWN--Karlsson's brother was a pediatric cancer specialist, so the pair conquered the clown curse by offering the demon terminally ill children, and when the demon offers to give Kent back for one more child, Meg isn't above leading an innocent kid to the slaughter if it means saving her family--but CLOWN just doesn't come together. It's sluggish and dull, and it needs a better actor than Powers to really feel for Kent's plight. It doesn't skimp on the gore and some occasional shock value antics, but this story is, at best, a 20-minute segment in an anthology film. (R, 99 mins)

(Turkey/US/UK - 2016)

This Turkish import got some significant acclaim at film festivals and from the horror scenester echo chamber, which only serves as further evidence that fanboys will bestow accolades on pretty much everything. BASKIN is a tired, slow-moving splatterfest that's a veritable grab-bag of cribbed material. The crux of the plot is essentially a Turkish HELLRAISER, with a quintet of cops answering a call for backup and ending up at a long-abandoned police station off a dark country road on the middle of nowhere. There's some backstory about the father-son relationship between the in-charge Boss Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu) and young rookie Arda (Gorkem Kasal), who was more or less raised by Remzi after a traumatic childhood incident that, of course, comes into play late in the film. The dark, empty police outpost is filled with bloodied, contorted souls in a mad orgy of sex and torture, overseen by "The Father," played in a bit of FREAKS and THE SENTINEL-style stunt casting by non-actor Mehmet Cerrahoglu. The Father puts the cops through all the torture porn tropes, whether it's slowly tearing out one's intestinal tract or carving out another's eyes and tongue-kissing the socket before making him fuck a goat-masked woman from behind.

It was the eye socket moment where I finally lost my patience with BASKIN. Not because of the gore or the perverse French kissing of the eye socket--that wasn't the problem at all. Even from the start, little things started rubbing me the wrong way and I was getting grouchy without really realizing it, whether it was a restaurant scene where the cops are swapping stories and one goes into a Joe Pesci "Funny how?" routine from GOODFELLAS; or the long exploration of the dark, cavernous underbelly of the abandoned police station that just seemed a little too much like SESSION 9; or the fleeting glimpse of an obviously non-human figure darting across the frame like he was trying to find his way back to THE DESCENT. Director/co-writer Can Evrenol, expanding his 2013 short film of the same name, was wearing his love of horror movies on his sleeve, but it was just getting to be too much. Too forced. By the time The Father turns up about an hour in, talking about being "one with the cosmos" and "you always carry Hell with you," he started to sound a lot like HELLRAISER's Pinhead in the days when he was simply known as "Lead Cenobite." But then the eye socket scene happened and Evrenol lost me. He accompanies it with a prominent cue from Riz Ortolani's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST score--including that synthy beeeeeew!--and the transparency was just too much to ignore. That's what I concluded to be the exact moment where those lauding the film tilted their heads back, closed their eyes, exhaled slowly and purred "Oh, right there. That's the spot. I'm yours, BASKIN." There's nothing here but Evrenol name-checking bits and pieces of his favorite horror movies, bringing nothing new to the table but fooling enough people into proclaiming BASKIN some triumphant new vision of horror. It's lazy, it's uninspired, and worst of all, it's not scary. At all. It's all smoke and mirrors, and once again, horror fans prove themselves to be the biggest genre pushovers in moviegoing. BASKIN is the most overrated horror film since GOODNIGHT MOMMY. One more time, gang: start being a little more discerning, and a little less concerned with making sure your free screeners and your convention credentials keep coming. (Unrated, 97 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2016)

While everyone was busy fellating BASKIN, another horror film was stealthily released around the same time that actually deserved the accolades but more or less fell off the radar even with the scenesters. A slow-burner that starts ratcheting the tension in the first scene and never lets up, THE INVITATION is a film where it's best to go in knowing as little as possible. It's also one of the best films of the year that you've probably heard nothing about. En route to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) accidentally hit a coyote that Will is forced to put out of its misery via tire iron. That will turn out to be the least upsetting thing about the evening. The dinner party is at Will's old house, hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband, record producer/recovering addict David (Michiel Huisman). Several of their closest friends are there and it's been two years since they've all been together, the group more or less splintering when Will and Kira's young son died and their marriage didn't survive the aftermath. Right off the bat, Will gets a strange vibe from Eden and David, the two endlessly talking about a trip to Mexico where they embraced a self-help philosophy of grief coping known as "The Invitation." Also at the party is a friend they met in Mexico, a clingy and needy young woman named Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), who almost instantly offers to sleep with Will. There's also the ominous presence of stranger named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), a friend of Eden's and David's who breaks the ice by showing the group a DVD of an assisted suicide they observed in Mexico. Wounds that never completely healed are torn open as Will vehemently disagrees with the way Eden has addressed her grief. He's also bothered by Pruitt and the fact that the windows have bars on them, that Dave has locked all the doors from the inside, and the fact that one of the guests they're still waiting on left David a voice mail two hours earlier saying he was the first one there, yet no one has seen him and he's nowhere to be found.

Things only get more claustrophobic and uncomfortable from there, with things boiling over into sheer terror by the end. So many films do the slow-burn approach that ends being a lot of buildup to nothing, but THE INVITATION hooks you in from the start. No matter how slow or meandering it may seem in the early going, every line, every incredulous glance, and every reaction from Will is important. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi must've been sitting on this one for a while and saving it for the right occasion, because nothing else they've written--AEON FLUX, the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake, R.I.P.D., and both RIDE ALONGs--would indicate a capacity for the complexity and near anxiety-attack levels of suspense that transpire here. Nothing it as it seems and you'll never see where the story is heading with THE INVITATION. It's directed by Karyn Kusama, who established her indie cred with 2000's GIRLFIGHT but then washed out with high-profile studio projects AEON FLUX (2005) and JENNIFER'S BODY (2009). She's mainly been keeping busy directing TV (THE L WORD, CHICAGO FIRE, HALT AND CATCH FIRE), and THE INVITATION is her first feature film in seven years. It's a small masterpiece as far as modern day horror goes, a film that got some glowing reviews but very little attention from horror fans seemingly ready to call anything that gets made a classic. That's not to say THE INVITATION is an Insta-Horror Classic (© William Wilson), but it's one of the very few films of recent years, along with THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS, THE WITCH, and HUSH, that deserves the kind of fawning hype that comes with today's horror offerings. (Unrated, 100 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Retro Review: FEAR CITY (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by Abel Ferrara. Written by Nicholas St. John. Cast: Tom Berenger, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Scalia, Melanie Griffith, Rossano Brazzi, Jan Murray, Rae Dawn Chong, Joe Santos, Michael V. Gazzo, Janet Julian, Maria Conchita Alonso, Daniel Faraldo, Ola Ray, Frank Ronzio, Juan Fernandez, Tracy Griffith, Robert Miano, Frank Sivero, Neil Clifford. (R, 95 mins)

Though he established himself as a critically-acclaimed filmmaker during his '90s heyday with KING OF NEW YORK (1990), BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), and THE FUNERAL (1996) among others, the always controversial Abel Ferrara got his start in the NYC exploitation gutter. His first feature film was the 1976 porno 9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY and he followed that with 1979's scuzzy THE DRILLER KILLER, a self-explanatory splatter film where he also starred in the title role under the name "Jimmy Laine." 1981's low-budget vigilante thriller MS .45, in which a mute garment district seamstress (Zoe Tamerlis) goes full DEATH WISH on NYC scumbags after she's raped twice in the same day, was a hit on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit and even got some accolades from critics. Bronx-born Ferrara's contemporary NYC-set films  of that era are among the grimiest presentations of the city in all of cinema. Like a cinematic Travis Bickle, he's from the streets, he knows them, he's lived them, and he's seen the worst they have to offer. Ferrara's always had a keen ability to bring that sleazy world to vivid life on the big screen like few others.

MS .45 got Ferrara some attention from the big studios, and it makes one wonder exactly what 20th Century Fox expected when they greenlit FEAR CITY, Ferrara's first sizably-budgeted film with actual Hollywood actors. Filmed in the spring and summer of 1983--with BLUE THUNDER, FLASHDANCE, OCTOPUSSY, and LONE WOLF MCQUADE visible on Times Square theater marquees--FEAR CITY was produced by Zupnik-Curtis Enterprises, with a good chunk of the budget and a distribution deal provided by Fox. A combination cop/mob/slasher movie, FEAR CITY deals with the hunt for a serial attacker dubbed "The New York Knifer." He's slashing strippers, most of whom work for the Starlite Talent Agency, run by childhood buddies Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia in his first big screen role, fresh off two short-lived TV series with THE DEVLIN CONNECTION and BERRENGER'S) and Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger, who had just been in THE BIG CHILL and EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS). Both are connected to powerful mob boss Carmine (Rossano Brazzi, quite a ways away from THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN and SOUTH PACIFIC), who's the cash behind their business. Matt is a former boxer who walked away from the sport after killing an opponent in the ring. He's also nursing a broken heart after a relationship with ex-junkie dancer Loretta (Melanie Griffith, around the same time she played a porn star in Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE) went south. Matt and Nicky's business starts collapsing after the wave of stripper murders, and when the body count starts rising, they're forced to team up with top competitor Goldstein (Borscht Belt legend Jan Murray, dropping F-bombs in what would be his last film appearance) as rival talent agents, club owners, and mobsters all set aside their ongoing beefs to organize their own hunt for the martial-arts madman (played by an uncredited Neil Clifford) who's killing their girls and costing them money. Matt also has to deal with perpetually irritable detective Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), who doesn't seem to get much work done but has a big chip on his shoulder about Italian-Americans, never missing a chance to hurl slurs like "dago," "guinea," "greaseball," "goombah," and "wop" at Matt, Nicky, and anyone in the immediate vicinity who looks or sounds even remotely Italian.

Shot entirely on location and setting the mood with the theme song "New York Doll" by New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, FEAR CITY effectively captures the grimy filth and the neon sleaze of early 1980s NYC. The story structure in regular Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John's script is rather formulaic--of course Matt and Loretta will rekindle their love, and of course the horror of her friends being murdered will send her back to the needle--but the fascinating cast (also featuring Joe Santos, Michael V. Gazzo, Rae Dawn Chong, Maria Conchita Alonso, Ola Ray from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, and, as Loretta's dealer, a typically reptilian Juan Fernandez, best known to trash movie fans as "that shitbag Duke" in KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS) and various quirks keep things interesting. Ferrara goes off on a bit of a tangent near the end, invoking the kind of recurring Catholic imagery that was so prominent in MS .45 and would be again in later films like BAD LIEUTENANT. The momentum is sidetracked a bit in the late going as Ferrara and St. John explore Matt's tortured soul as everything haunting his conscience comes to a head: the murders he's witnessed as a mob flunky since being a neighborhood shoeshine boy in his youth, killing a man in the ring, Loretta using again, Nicky ending up in a coma after a near-fatal encounter with the Knifer. It all leads to not just a confessional with a sympathetic priest but also a Tom Berenger shadow-boxing/workout montage as he prepares to take out the Knifer himself.  There's another interesting character element in that African-American Wheeler and his Hispanic partner Sanchez (Daniel Faraldo) are far and away the biggest racists in the movie. Its killer (dubbed "The Karate Killer" by FEAR CITY fans even though he's only referred to as "The New York Knifer" in the movie), who attacks with ninja-like precision and often practices his martial arts moves in the nude, could be a close relative of Gene Davis' legendary in-the-buff serial killer in the Charles Bronson classic 10 TO MIDNIGHT.

With its gratuitous nudity and graphic violence, FEAR CITY didn't endear itself to the top brass at Fox. Even after Ferrara trimmed some of the violence and nixed a kissing scene between bisexual Loretta and soon-to-be-victim Leila (Chong), the studio still wasn't happy and refused to release the film. After sitting on it for over a year, Fox finally sold it back to Zupnik-Curtis, who decided to release it independently through their own Maryland-based Chevy Chase Distribution (which may have led some moviegoers to believe Chevy Chase was involved in it) while selling the New York rights to Terry Levine's Aquarius Releasing, an outfit best known for driving a Butchermobile around Manhattan to promote DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. (the uncut version of FEAR CITY was eventually released on Blu-ray in 2012 by Shout! Factory, but the reinstated shots were lesser-quality standard def). Though it was released in Europe in 1984, FEAR CITY didn't start hitting US theaters until February 1985. Berenger would get an Oscar nomination for the next year's PLATOON and Ferrara went on to direct a couple of MIAMI VICE episodes and the pilot for the acclaimed NBC series CRIME STORY in 1986. He moved on to two mishandled Vestron releases with the warring street gang ROMEO AND JULIET redux CHINA GIRL (1987) and the Elmore Leonard thriller CAT CHASER (1989) before the now-classic KING OF NEW YORK and BAD LIEUTENANT cemented his status as a key figure in the '90s indie explosion.

FEAR CITY opening with little fanfare or print support in Toledo, OH on 4/19/1985

Actual layout of the above shot, demonstrating how much
advertising support FEAR CITY was getting. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: IMPERIUM (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Daniel Ragussis. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Burn Gorman, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, Linc Hand, Adam Maier, Roger Yawson. (R, 108 mins)

It's hard not to be reminded of 1998's AMERICAN HISTORY X or 2002's THE BELIEVER while watching IMPERIUM. It's another chronicle of white supremacy, but while it provides insightful commentary on the nature of fascism, its primary concern is being a straightforward thriller. It's also yet another example of the changing nature of film distribution. Headlined by an actor known the world over, it's a sad commentary that a solid, crackerjack nail-biter like this is relegated to a few screens and a VOD dumping. It didn't cost much to make and it's not an offbeat art film. It's a smart movie that would've been a hit 10-15 years ago, and it's depressing that there's no place for IMPERIUM in today's blockbuster-obsessed, franchise-driven distribution model. It's also a very topical film considering the rhetoric of a major American political party's Presidential nominee, a man whose words and opinions have frequently been termed "fascist." IMPERIUM looks at the motivation behind fascism and what really drives it ("it's about looking for someone to blame"), and does so without being overtly political. There's no liberal vs. conservative soapboxing here, but it does provide a sometimes terrifying look inside the white supremacy culture, much like AMERICAN HISTORY X did. The stereotypes are there, but they don't always apply. White power meetings take place at suburban homes in IMPERIUM. The ugly rhetoric is discussed at backyard barbecues while children play, and where housewives bake cookies decorated with swastikas. These are people you know, and you don't know them at all.

Young FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a quiet outsider among his colleagues, riding along on raids but spending most of his time at his desk combing through surveillance material. It's his introverted and analytical nature that attracts the attention of Agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette). When six sealed barrels of radioactive cesium go missing from an overturned chemical transport vehicle outside of Washington, D.C., Zamparo is convinced it's part of a plot by Richmond-area white power radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) to detonate a dirty bomb in the nation's capital. She wants Nate to go undercover as a skinhead and infiltrate Wolf's inner circle. Passing himself off as an embittered vet just back from Iraq, Nate gets his foot in the door by getting chummy with low-level dirtbags like Vince (Pawel Szajda) and Roy (Seth Numrich), guys who talk loud and are always looking for a fight. This introduces him to the more connected Ohio-based religious militia figure Andrew Blackwell (Chris Sullivan) and engineer Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell). While Blackwell is the standard-issue, swastika-sporting skinhead, albeit with more drive, focus, and a seemingly intelligent demeanor than clowns like Vince and Roy, Conway is an upper-middle class suburban husband and father with a successful career. Of course, he's taught his kids that their playhouse needs to be fortified in case "the mud people" attack, but Nate is caught off-guard by how far from the stereotype Conway and his associates present themselves. Conway even tells Nate "You seem a little mature for a skinhead," as they observe the drinking, fighting, and carrying on of Vince and Roy. Nate is eventually introduced to Wolf, by spinning a story about being backed by an investor who wants to take Wolf's show nationwide but needs assurance that his plans are coming to fruition. When a small Geiger counter indicates high levels of radiation in Wolf's house, Nate and Zamparo are convinced that the cesium is on the premises and set in motion a plan to take down Wolf and his followers.

Things don't go according to plan, but little does in IMPERIUM. It's a film that never plays out how you expect it to and adds unpredictable little asides that sometimes border on black comedy: witness the cringeworthy moment when a humiliated Vince, who talks a big game about "going way back with Dallas," isn't even recognized by the radio host when he introduces Nate to him. Or, even funnier, when Nate visits Wolf at his nondescript house in an average neighborhood and finds that this white power hero is a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother. It's her house and the much ballyhooed radio show is broadcast from a tiny den in the basement ("This is just temporary!" Wolf keeps adamantly insisting). Wolf spouts a lot of ideas online and in his speeches ("Diversity is a code word for 'white genocide!'"), but the early signs that he's little more than a shit-stirring troll who regards his followers as little more than useful idiots are telling. It's a very subtle performance by Letts, a veteran playwright and screenwriter (BUG, KILLER JOE, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY), who's only recently been gaining ground as an actor in films like THE BIG SHORT, ELVIS & NIXON, and an acclaimed turn in INDIGNATION. Radcliffe is credible and believable throughout, though director Daniel Ragussis' script, inspired by a true story involving now-retired FBI agent Michael German, sometimes abandons key figures and plot points. It's stated that "a lot of these white supremacist guys are all talk," but as the true threat presents itself, we never see what happens to some of the others, and this is after Blackwell makes it quite clear something about Nate doesn't gel. But then we never see him again. The audience might also like to know more about the African-American protester at a white power rally who recognizes Nate and asks him what he's doing there (staying in character, Nate has to respond by shouting "Shut the fuck up, n----r!"), but we never see him again.

It's around this time that IMPERIUM pivots from AMERICAN HISTORY X-type statement to a domestic terrorism thriller along the likes of ARLINGTON ROAD or the little-seen UNTHINKABLE. The shift is smooth enough that it isn't awkward or a major disruption, but it's noticeable. And it still works. Though its antagonists differ, IMPERIUM actually has a lot in common with UNTHINKABLE, a terrific film that should've received more exposure than it got, but maybe that's the issue right there. It would be one thing if Radcliffe were paired up with, say, Bruce Willis in a quipping, mismatched buddy actioner about two FBI agents out to stop a white supremacist outfit...if they don't kill each other first!  That's a film that would get a wide release. But think back to ARLINGTON ROAD's release being delayed for several months in 1999 because of the Columbine tragedy. 2010's UNTHINKABLE and now IMPERIUM are two smart yet multiplex-ready, commercial thrillers that take a completely serious and uncompromising approach to their subject. Maybe the potential for controversy is too much of a headache. Maybe movies like this just make studios uncomfortable. They wouldn't have 20 or 30 years ago. This is not to imply that IMPERIUM is some kind of classic or anything, but it is a good film that deserves a much better rollout than it's getting.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Retro Review: EMANUELLE IN AMERICA (1977)

(Italy - 1977)

Directed by Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi). Written by Maria Pia Fusco. Cast: Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Paola Senatore, Roger Browne, Riccardo Salvino, Lars Bloch, Maria Piera Regoli, Matilde Dell'Aglio, Stefania Nocilli, Giulio Bianchi, Efrem Appel, Lorraine De Selle, Salvatore Baccaro, Renate Kasche, Pedro the Horse. (Unrated, 100 mins)

The most notorious of the tenuously-connected BLACK EMANUELLE series--at least in its uncut version--EMANUELLE IN AMERICA is, for the most part, another globe-trotting travelogue with freelance photojournalist Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) engaging in the usual spontaneous sexcapades. Made as a direct response to Just Jaeckin's X-rated, 1974 global phenomenon EMMANUELLE with Sylvia Kristel, 1975's BLACK EMANUELLE (note one less "m"), directed by Bitto Albertini, showcased 25-year-old, Indonesian-born Gemser in the title role (around the same time, she had a small part in the 1975 Kristel sequel EMMANUELLE: THE JOYS OF A WOMAN). Combining the erotic elements of EMMANUELLE with a nod to blaxploitation, BLACK EMANUELLE was successful enough that Gemser was soon starring in all sorts of softcore erotica that were often exported as EMANUELLE movies even though she sat out the first official sequel. 1976's BLACK EMANUELLE 2, also directed by Albertini, saw Gemser replaced by the George Lazenby of the series, one-and-done Israeli actress Shulamith Lasri, credited as "Sharon Lesley." Gemser, meanwhile, was headlining a slew of unofficial follow-ups that were often shot under one title but released as EMANUELLE movies, like Brunello Rondi's BLACK EMMANUELLE, WHITE EMMANUELLE (1976), which paired her with French actress Annie Belle and reinstated the extra "m" to the title; Enzo D'Ambrosio's boring EMANUELLE ON TABOO ISLAND (1976), which featured five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy at an all-time career low; Giuseppe Vari's nunsploitation outing SISTER EMANUELLE (1977); Mario Bianchi's sex comedy EMANUELLE IN THE COUNTRY (1978); and the Greek-made drama EMANUELLE'S DAUGHTER (1980). In 1978, perennial D-list producer and later serial Bruno Mattei enabler Franco Gaudenzi (STRIKE COMMANDO, ROBOWAR) tried to get a piece of the action, taking an unreleased mondo documentary and having Gemser host introductions to its segments, releasing it under the title EMANUELLE AND THE EROTIC NIGHTS, which received a US release in 1983 as an early acquisition of Bob and Harvey Weinstein's fledgling Miramax Films. So popular were these EMANUELLE films that Albertini would even be hired to direct Chai Lee as an Asian Emanuelle in the 1977 offshoot YELLOW EMANUELLE.

1976 saw a BLACK EMANUELLE reboot of sorts, with a returning Gemser and veteran cinematographer and journeyman director Aristide Massaccesi (better known as "Joe D'Amato") starting a long partnership that extended beyond just the BLACK EMANUELLEs. 1976's EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK was released around the same time as BLACK EMANUELLE 2 and more or less ignores it, with Emanuelle once again an independent, respected, and sexually-liberated journalist (Lasri's Black Emanuelle was a famous model) sent off to investigate something in some semblance of a plot that's just an excuse for a plethora of sex scenes. Gemser and D'Amato would make five of their own EMANUELLEs, with BANGKOK followed by three in a busy 1977: EMANUELLE IN AMERICA, EMANUELLE AROUND THE WORLD (released in the US in 1980), and the cannibal horror hybrid EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (released in the US in 1984, after the craze had passed, as TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, presumably to draw in the MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY crowd). The final installment, 1978's EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE, was a quickie padded with significant amounts of recycled and redubbed footage from previous Gemser EMANUELLEs. Another Gemser/D'Amato collaboration, BLACK COBRA WOMAN (1976), co-starring a slumming and probably shitfaced Jack Palance, was sold in Japan as an EMANUELLE film, and several years later, Gemser would resurrect the Emanuelle-as-crusading-reporter act without D'Amato for a pair of Bruno Mattei women-in-prison movies, 1982's VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON (released in the US in 1984 as CAGED WOMEN), and 1983's immortal WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE (released in the US in 1985).

Gemser and offscreen husband and frequent co-star Gabriele
Tinti. They were married from 1976 until his death in 1991.
Fans generally cite EMANUELLE IN AMERICA as the high point of Gemser's EMANUELLE run, but that seems most likely due to its shock value. It's rough going for the uninitiated, especially on Blue Underground's 2003 DVD release, which presents the film in its uncut, 100-minute version (VidAmerica's VHS ran somewhere in the vicinity of 82 minutes). It's a typical Gemser/D'Amato EMANUELLE set-up: moonlighting as a fashion photographer in NYC--with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT PART 2 visible on theater marquees, Gemser riding the Roosevelt Island tram, and Big Apple pedestrians predictably gawking at the camera--Emanuelle is almost killed by a model's crazed boyfriend before calming him down the best way she knows how: with a blowjob. She then gets a hot tip about a sex trafficking ring involving wealthy asshole Eric Van Darren (Lars Bloch). Armed with her sneaky pendant camera with a seemingly endless supply of film, Emanuelle infiltrates his group of Zodiac-named women and going by "Virgo," she's privy to all sorts of high society, EYES WIDE SHUT transgressions, including one of the women (SALON KITTY's Paola Senatore), jerking off Van Darren's prized horse Pedro in a scene of explicit bestiality that was obviously cut from most releases. From there, Emanuelle follows Van Darren's duke friend (Gabriele Tinti, Gemser's husband and frequent co-star--they met on BLACK EMANUELLE and married in NYC around the time of EMANUELLE IN AMERICA's shoot, becoming the Bogie & Bacall of Italian trash cinema) to his villa in Venice, where she witnesses an orgy that includes some onscreen fellatio in shots that never involve Gemser. From there, she goes to an island where D'Amato stops the film cold for a solid ten minutes of hardcore sex scenes and money shots involving previously unseen actors (one of whom is Nazisploitation regular Salvatore Baccaro, best known for his credit "and Boris Lugosi as Ook the Neanderthal Man" in 1973's FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS). While on the island, Emanuelle witnesses a copulating couple carrying on as a brutal snuff film plays in the background. An investigation of the snuff film leads her to the nation's capital (why didn't they call this EMANUELLE GOES TO WASHINGTON?), where she's seduced by a corrupt senator (Roger Browne, a Cincinnati, OH native who spent his entire career in Europe) with a penchant for LSD and getting off on the kind of filmed torture tactics that would make him the ideal target for Videodrome. Then it all ends with a wacky, fourth-wall breaking finale involving Emanuelle and her boyfriend (Riccardo Salvino)--yes, she has a boyfriend--and some comical stereotypes of island natives.

Narratively speaking, EMANUELLE IN AMERICA is a mind-boggling mess with little flow and even less logic. But nobody's watching this for storytelling. The more conventional sex scenes are well-handled--a sweaty steamroom hook-up between Emanuelle and Gemini (Lorraine De Selle) is nicely done--and while it's not quite "Run Cheetah Run" from EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE, it's got a great catchy, "English-as-second-language" Nico Fidenco-penned theme song in "Celebrate Myself." But D'Amato just goes too far for the audience that watched these softcore Euro imports on late night Showtime back in the early '80s. Of course, the hardcore elements would've been trimmed (and were only shot by D'Amato as alternate takes for different territories in the first place), but while I see the demand for cum shots if there was potential for this on the XXX circuit, who other than Pedro really wants to see Paola Senatore (who, big surprise, was doing porn a decade later) give a horse a two-handed tugjob?  Between that and the disgustingly graphic and very convincing snuff film snippets that D'Amato shot, I question EMANUELLE IN AMERICA's definition of "entertainment." Gemser is as lovely as ever here, but the enjoyment is significantly hampered by all the extraneous shit going on. I'll take the drag queen bowling alley brawl in EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE any day. D'Amato would continue dabbling in all sorts of genres (zombies, cannibals, CONAN and ROAD WARRIOR ripoffs) before his death in 1999, spending the final years of his career in hardcore porn. Gemser would be an exploitation staple well into the '80s, with appearances in 1976's VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED, the 1981 Rankin/Bass period epic THE BUSHIDO BLADE, and an unlikely co-starring role with Michael Landon in the 1983 NBC TV-movie LOVE IS FOREVER (where she was credited as "Moira Chen" when producers didn't want her sexploitation notoriety to be a distraction) representing her only attempts at mainstream crossover. A devastated Gemser would retire from acting when 59-year-old Tinti died of cancer in 1991, though she worked behind the scenes as a costume designer on a few more D'Amato productions (including the legendary TROLL 2) before withdrawing from movies altogether in 1993. Now 65, Gemser lives completely out of the public eye. She gave an audio interview for EMANUELLE IN AMERICA's 2003 DVD release, but her last on-camera appearance to date was in an interview for EMMANUELLE: A HARD LOOK, a 2001 British TV documentary about Sylvia Kristel's EMMANUELLE films by REPO MAN director Alex Cox.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

In Theaters: ANTHROPOID (2016)

(Czech Republic/UK/France - 2016)

Directed by Sean Ellis. Written by Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerova, Harry Lloyd, Sam Keeley, Jiri Simek, Marcin Dorocinski, Jan Hajek, Alena Mihulova, Bill Milner, Pavel Reznicik, Vaclav Neuzil, Mish Boyko, Andrej Polak, Jan Budar, Roman Zach, Detlef Bothe. (R, 120 mins)

It's probably difficult to bring anything new to the WWII genre after 70+ years worth of movies, and ANTHROPOID doesn't really try. Despite a title that sounds like some kind of ALIEN spinoff, the film tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the 1942 plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich--#3 in the Nazi chain of command after Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, and who chaired the Wannsee Conference that laid the groundwork for the "Final Solution"--in Czechoslovakia. It's an event that's been depicted in movies going back to when it was still breaking news in 1943, as Fritz Lang's HANGMEN ALSO DIE! and a pre-tearjerker Douglas Sirk's HITLER'S MADMAN were loose chronicles of Operation Anthropoid filtered through the lens of patriotic, crowd-pleasing Hollywood war effort propaganda. The 1964 Czech film ATENTAT and 1975's OPERATION DAYBREAK (from three-time 007 director Lewis Gilbert) also told the Anthropoid story. Director/co-writer/cinematographer Sean Ellis (CASHBACK, THE BROKEN, METRO MANILA) is able to bring more bleak brutality to this than films from the 1940s could and, contrasted with the glossy feel of big WWII epics, his use of handheld shaky-cam brings a gritty, in-your-face immediacy to the proceedings despite frequent overuse. While ANTHROPOID doesn't reinvent the wheel as far as WWII programmers go, and there's a couple of hoary cliches and obvious symbolism in the finale (a candle extinguishing just as someone's life ends? Really?), it's well-acted, the period detail is excellent, and Ellis nails several intense and nerve-shredding set pieces throughout.

Parachuting into German-occupied Czechoslovakia as part of the Anglo-Czech Allied operation, Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) meet with Czech Resistance leaders Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski), who arrange for them to be sheltered by the Moravecs (Alena Mihulova, Pavel Reznicik) and their 15-year-old violin prodigy son Ata (Bill Milner). Their orders are to assassinate Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), the head of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia, and while the plan is in the works, they manage to blend into their surroundings by being seen with two local women, Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerova), who are also part of the Resistance. When word comes down in the final days of May 1942 that Heydrich is being reassigned to France, Gabcik and Kubis immediately go forward with the plan on May 27, with the help of other officers and Resistance members. It almost immediately flies off the rails when Gabcik steps in front of Heydrich's car to open fire and his machine gun jams, leading to an explosive battle erupting on a busy Prague street. Kubis blows up Heydrich's car with a bomb and the Nazi takes a few rounds in the ongoing crossfire. Heydrich would die from his injuries a week later, but in the immediate afterward of the execution of Operation Anthropoid, Gabcik, Kubis, and the others are under the impression that they failed. Upon Heydrich's death, an enraged Hitler sends more troops into Czechoslovakia. The hunt for Heydrich's killers begins at Lidice, where any male over the age of 16 is executed and the women and children are rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Gabcik, Kubis, and five other Czech officers take refuge in a crypt underneath the Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague, where they remain undetected for two weeks until Czech Resistance member Karel Curda (Jiri Simek), fearing for the safety of his family, rats out the Moravecs, which leads to the Nazi siege of the cathedral on June 18, 1942, where the seven Czech soldiers--three in the church and four down below in the cavernous crypt--manage to hold off the Germans for six hours.

Ellis' handling of the attempt on Heydrich's life on a crowded street and the final siege at the cathedral are masterfully done. It's edge-of-your-seat suspense, even when you know the outcome. Prior to that, Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin, a trusted member of Stanley Kubrick's inner circle from 1968's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to 1999's EYES WIDE SHUT, and the writer of 2007's COLOR ME KUBRICK, don't really delve too much into the characters other than what we need to know. The filmmakers make a concerted and unflinching effort to stay close to the facts, even if it paints the heroes in negative light. Murphy's Gabcik is driven and obsessed, while Dornan's Kubis is more emotional and prone to choking at clutch moments, such as an early anxiety attack that prevents him from shooting a fleeing traitor and his allowing himself to fall in love with Marie (cue a disdainful Gabcik inevitably calling him out with a "Why are we here?" lecture).  They also don't shy away from depicting the kinds of psychological and physical torture the Resistance members endured, particularly in the horror inflicted on young Ata Moravec. There isn't much here you haven't seen in any number of WWII movies, but it's a riveting story and the pace is relentless. Considering the season and the depressing glut of franchises, brands, and regurgitated remakes out there right now, ANTHROPOID is a welcome bit of grown-up counterprogramming that probably won't get much attention in theaters, but will undoubtedly find a larger audience on streaming and cable down the road.